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The Amateur: Trip Kuehne's life without pro golf

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L to R: Dusti, Trip and Will Kuehne (courtesy: Barbara Berry)  - 

A few weeks ago, Dusti Kuehne was sitting on the couch watching Olympic platform diving when a seemingly innocuous text message arrived on her phone.

“I always think of TK on this weekend,” a longtime family friend wrote. “You know how people can tell you where they were when certain things happen that you don’t forget? We were in Lake Tahoe and watched every hole of that match. Hope he is doing something fun today – maybe coaching Will!”

Kuehne had no idea what the text was referring to.

What’s this weekend?

What had happened?

What match?

Finally, she searched Google, looking for an explanation … and then she stumbled upon it.

Oh, THAT match.

It has been 22 years since her husband, Trip, lost to Tiger Woods in the finals of the 1994 U.S. Amateur. Five down with 12 holes to play, Woods’ furious comeback kept alive his incredible run of USGA championships, but for Kuehne, the dramatic duel was even more significant. It helped confirm his impending career choice.

Some of the family’s closest friends might think about that heartbreaking defeat every August, but Trip, now 44, clearly does not. He didn’t watch any of this year’s U.S. Amateur coverage from Oakland Hills. Instead, he spent that weekend with son Will at the University of North Texas football team’s intrasquad scrimmage.

“A lot of people think that that was a bad thing, that he was way ahead and got beat,” Dusti said recently. “But I wouldn’t know Trip if he hadn’t lost. Our son wouldn’t be here. Neither of us would be the same.

“So really, looking back, was it good or bad that he lost?”

Trip Kuehne during the 2008 Masters (Getty)

After that match, Kuehne never wavered between his two career choices, and he remains the only first-, second- or third-team All-American in the past 25 years who did not pursue a pro career after college.

For Maverick McNealy and any other undecided prospect, Kuehne endures as a shining example of how it’s possible to have both a lucrative business and a fulfilling playing career. Kuehne got married, earned his MBA and plunged into the financial world, using his business acumen and contacts to eventually start his own hedge-fund company in Dallas, Double Eagle Capital, where he currently manages about $200 million for investors.

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But after spending a decade as the best golfer on Wall Street, after becoming one of the top amateurs in the world, Kuehne rarely plays anymore; he has logged no more than 100 rounds since retiring from competitive golf on April 11, 2008, after missing the cut at the Masters. His focus now is his family and his business, in that order, and his decorated career is usually just a conversation starter among potential clients who did their research. 

“I’ve never stuck my toe in the water,” Kuehne said. “I’ve either been all in or all out. If I do something, I’m going to do it to an exceptional level. But that’s not where my focus is right now.”

The Kuehnes are still the most successful siblings in amateur golf history. Kelli, 39, was a former Girls’ Junior and Women’s Amateur champion. Hank, 42, won the Amateur in 1998. (Injuries derailed both of their pro careers.) And Trip, after that near miss against Woods in ’94, finally captured his own USGA title at the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur.

Though Kuehne insists that professional golf was never a long-term goal, he was groomed for stardom at an early age. Like the rest of his siblings, he began working with swing coach Hank Haney when he was 16, imitating Sam Snead’s swing while watching the legendary 1964 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match against Ben Hogan. “He was a really good ball-striker,” Haney said of Kuehne. “He made the sound. He hit the shots. He had the power.”

Kuehne won two high school state championships at Dallas’ Highland Park, a feat he shared at the time with Texas legends Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Justin Leonard. But even more rewarding were the team titles he won, first in high school and then as a part of Oklahoma State’s 1995 NCAA Championship squad.

The players whom Kuehne grew up competing against – Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Leonard – all dreamed of becoming a professional golfer. But not Kuehne. He knew the odds were stacked against him. He saw how trying to play the game for a living destroyed families and ruined friendships. “My decision not to turn pro didn’t surprise a lot of people,” he said, “because they all knew I didn’t want to go that route. I never talked about it.”

The 1994 U.S. Amateur nearly made him reconsider. He raced out to a huge lead in the 36-hole championship match against Woods, only to falter down the stretch, including a three-putt bogey on the last. (He still avoids replays.) Even Kuehne admitted afterward that the financial impact of winning the Am would have been too much to ignore.

“It’s hard to win a U.S. Amateur and decide you’re not going to turn pro,” Haney said. “It just doesn’t happen. He should have won that, but it was probably a blessing in disguise.”

Over the next few years, Kuehne won three college tournaments and became a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State, where he earned the 1995 Ben Hogan Award and played on his first of three Walker Cup teams. But to Haney, it was obvious that Kuehne had made the right choice by remaining a lifelong amateur.

“He wasn’t good enough to play the PGA Tour. Not even close,” Haney said. “You have to be able to putt. His ball-striking was as good as anybody, but he would have been one of the worst putters on Tour.”

Haney might wonder what he could have done differently, or if they should have spent more time honing Kuehne’s green-reading skills and feel, but it’s always easier for high-caliber players to improve their long game than their putting. Kuehne’s game was simply better suited to amateur events and U.S. Opens, where par was rewarded, than Tour events that devolve into track meets.

But of the roughly 200 Tour pros he has taught in his career, Haney can easily identify the two most impressive ball-strikers: Woods, of course, whom he coached from 2004-10. And then Kuehne. “Unfortunately,” Haney said, “that’s just one part of the game.”

“Trip is a reminder of how good Tour pros really are, and how hard it is to make it,” Haney said. “He was a great student. He had a great business mind. And he had options. There aren’t a lot of guys with options, so I can see why they would try the pro route, even if it’s a long shot.”

In 1996, Kuehne was working as an assistant coach at OSU when he met Dusti during a pickup game between the men’s golf and women’s basketball teams. A 5-foot-9 guard, Dusti greeted her future husband by throwing a few elbows in his sternum to establish position.

Dusti was from Shattuck, Okla., population 1,365. Though she didn’t follow the sport at all, she never even sensed that Trip harbored any aspirations of playing professionally. “He never talked about it,” she said. “I knew so little about golf that I would have been shocked if he could turn pro. By the time I came into his life, that never even entered my mind.”

Three days after earning his MBA from Oklahoma State, Kuehne joined White Rock Capital in Dallas, where he spent four years as a stock analyst. (He later worked for four years as the head of institutional equity sales at Legg Mason before founding his own company.)

At his best, Kuehne adhered to a tight, regimented schedule. In the early 2000s, from tax day (April) to the U.S. Mid-Amateur (October), he worked out at 5:45 a.m., arrived at the office by 7:30, left at 4:30 p.m. and worked intensely for two hours on the range at TPC Las Colinas. He’d hit all 156 balls in his shag bag, chip them into piles, putt for 20 minutes and then recover in the whirlpool and steam room before making the one-mile drive back home, always in time for dinner, served promptly each night at 6:30. His pre-tournament prep was just as disciplined, and a team of physical therapists and trainers monitored his fitness and conditioning.

As his business career took off, Kuehne also compiled a hugely successful amateur résumé. For the better part of a decade, he had “the greatest seat in the house,” playing with legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, as well as next-gen stars Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler and Billy Horschel. In 2006, Kuehne climbed as high as No. 3 in the world, but his ’07 U.S. Mid-Amateur title became something of a lifetime achievement award; the 9-and-7 victory earned him another trip to the Masters, 13 years after his memorable U.S. Am runner-up.

It proved a fitting coda: Having grown weary of the travel, Kuehne decided that, at age 35, he’d end his competitive career at Augusta, with Will watching outside the ropes for the first time.

“It just wasn’t fair,” Kuehne said. “I have a family I need to raise and I’d accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. There comes a point where my son is way more important than playing on a Walker Cup team or at the Sunnehanna.”

The landscape had changed, too. More than half the field at the Mid-Am is comprised of reinstated amateurs. The biggest events in the summer are de-facto college tournaments. And there is so much money at the pro level – $712,723 in earnings wasn’t enough to keep a Tour card this season – that it seduces even the questionable talents.

“I have a hard time sitting with some of these kids that seek me out,” Kuehne said. “I ask them: What are your goals and dreams? And it’s always to play on the PGA Tour. I sit there, knowing full well because I’ve watched them, that there’s no way they’re going to make it. But how can I tell them not to follow and chase their dreams? Why shouldn’t they do that? That’s what I did.”

Trip Kuehne, owner Double Eagle Captial (Kuehne family)

Since 2008, the game has been little more than an afterthought to Kuehne, despite living inside a golf community at Vaquero Club, where the range is a half-mile from his house. He hasn’t touched a club since early June, and he estimated that he hasn’t played more than 100 rounds since the Masters, not even to entice potential investors. He proudly described himself as a fair-weather golfer – willing to play only if it’s between 65 and 85 degrees, under perfectly sunny skies – even though he still carries a plus-1 handicap.

“When you’ve played at a high level, and you try to go back to it and it’s not where you were, it’s awful,” Dusti said. “Trip understands what kind of preparation is involved to compete at that level – the diet, the workouts, the hours practicing and playing – and he doesn’t want to play half-ass golf. That’s not fun. What’s fun is the process where you build and get really good. And right now, he just doesn’t have the time and maybe not the desire to go through that kind of discipline. There are too many competing factors.”

None are more important than Will, now 16 and a high-school sophomore in Westlake, Texas. Like his father, he has grown into an athletic frame, 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. A pro-style quarterback, he has already received a few offers to play at the Division I level. And so instead of bolting out of the office at 4:30 for a shirt-soaking range session, Trip now heads toward Liberty Christian School, for the end of football practice. “At this point in Will’s life,” Dusti said, “I can’t imagine there’s any way that Trip is missing a football game to go to a golf tournament.”

Someday, of course, that might change. Kuehne might rediscover his passion for the game. His priorities could shift. He hopes to play in every available USGA event, but so far he hasn’t made the necessary commitment.

Not once did he speak regretfully about the past, about the U.S. Amateur he should have won or the difficult choices he has made. Don’t expect him to, either.

“I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “I’m one of the few people that can honestly say that every single goal or dream I’ve ever had I’ve checked off. I’m blessed to be able to say that.”