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College notebook: Kuehn already forging own path at Wake Forest

Annika Foundation

During the college golf season, will check in weekly to update what’s happening in the world of college golf.

When Rachel Kuehn was a high school sophomore in the middle of the recruiting process, Wake Forest was at the bottom of her list of prospective schools.

Nothing against the Demon Deacons, but Kuehn wanted to forge her own path.

Her father, Eric Kuehn, played baseball at Wake while her mother, Brenda Corrie Kuehn, was an All-American golfer for the Demon Deacons. Brenda Kuehn played two seasons at Wake, winning five times as a senior to set a program record for wins in a single season, and was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 1999.

“I told them, ‘Mom, Dad, don’t take it personally, but I’m never, ever, in a million years going to Wake Forest,'” Kuehn recalled. “I didn’t want to go and be Brenda’s daughter and have to live in her shadow. … I wanted to go somewhere that was my own school.”

Kuehn’s parents did talk their daughter into making an unofficial visit to Winston-Salem, N.C. – it was Halloween 2016, and Kuehn went somewhat begrudgingly – but when Rachel stepped on campus, her attitude changed.

“You know that feeling that everyone tells you about where you just know the second that you get on campus that this is where you want to spend the next four years?” Kuehn said. “That was the feeling I got.”

Kuehn immediately phoned her mom on the drive back to Asheville, N.C., and declared: “I guess I’m going to Wake Forest.”

Two-and-a-half years later, Kuehn has already accomplished something her mother never did while in school: Win in her first collegiate start. Kuehn shot 13 under, a Wake freshman record, to capture the prestigious Annika Intercollegiate by five shots, topping a field that featured 12 All-Americans from a season ago.

“It was unbelievable,” said Brenda Kuehn, “unbelievable that she kept the intensity from beginning to end, and against that field.”

The wire-to-wire victory came with a team title (Wake won by 14 shots) and a week after Kuehn watched from home as her team finished second at the Cougar Classic. She had failed to make the lineup for the fall opener by one shot after hitting a cart path and making a triple bogey late in her final qualifying round.

But Kuehn responded by winning the next qualifier – and then one of the season’s toughest events.

“She’s solidified her spot pretty strongly now,” Wake coach Kim Lewellen said.

Lewellen raves about Kuehn – her natural talent, solid mechanics, tireless work ethic, fiery competitiveness, eye-popping athleticism (Kuehn won a state tennis title in high school). But Lewellen has been most impressed by Kuehn’s mental game, comparing the freshman to a player she coached at Virginia, Brittany Altomare, who recently competed in the Solheim Cup.

“I texted her mother and said, ‘I don’t know if it’s genetics or she learned it from you, but she has one of the best golf IQs that I’ve coached,'" Lewellen said. "You add that to all those intangibles and at some point, the magic moment is going to happen and she’s going to win an event.

"Now, did I expect it to be the first event out of the gate with a field of 12 All-Americans? Those odds might have been a little slim.”

After Kuehn’s victory, Lewellen texted Brenda and quipped, “It only took your kid once.”

Rachel, though, still has much to accomplish to warrant further comparisons to her mother. Brenda Kuehn wasn’t just an All-American in college, but she played in two Curtis Cups (going 4-0 in 1998), 16 U.S. Women’s Amateurs, 15 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateurs (finishing runner-up in 1995) and nine U.S. Women’s Opens.

Her final U.S. Open came in 2001 at Pine Needles – she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with Rachel at the time. Brenda Kuehn, playing through contractions, missed the cut but celebrated that following Sunday with the birth of her first daughter.

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Many years later, Brenda watched as her teenage daughter teed it up in a junior tournament at Pine Needles.

“I’m not a very emotional person, but I remember her standing on that first tee and I got goosebumps,” Brenda said. “She was playing, and I was remembering me playing. I was watching her hit shots that I had hit with her.

“For me, at that point, it had come full circle.”

Rachel’s Annika victory, which earned the Kuehns the designation of first winning mother-daughter duo in Wake history, was another one of those full-circle moments. And more are likely to come.

“When I was a sophomore in high school deciding where I wanted to go, I didn’t really appreciate it,” Rachel said. “But now I can see how cool it is. I’m really in a unique situation to have an opportunity to share a legacy with my mom, and hopefully I’ll be able to do some of the things that she did.”

Brenda still laughs at that phone call from sophomore year, when a sassy Rachel told her mom, “You were there 30 years ago, and nobody knows who you are anymore.”

“She wanted to know that she could make it her own school,” Brenda said. “She felt that way after that visit, and she definitely  feels that way now.”

The five

1. While just one team on the women’s side (Kent State) has won its first two tournaments, the men’s game has several undefeated teams through multiple events. On Sunday, Georgia Tech and Baylor shared the team title at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational as each won for the second time in as many tournaments this fall. Tech’s win marked the 12th for the senior class of Andy Ogletree, Tyler Strafaci and Luke Schniederjans. The Bears opened the season with back-to-back wins for the first time since 2008.

Then on Tuesday, it was Arizona State, Texas Tech and Washington remaining on the list of unbeatens. The Huskies eclipsed their win total from the previous three seasons combined by winning the Old Town Collegiate, finishing 10 shots clear of Wake Forest. The Red Raiders shot 12 under in the final round of the Inverness Intercollegiate, rallying to beat Tennessee by eight shots. And the Sun Devils, without first-team All-American Chun An Yu (who is playing in this week’s Asia-Pacific Amateur along with teammate Won Jun Lee), shot 30 under and topped host SMU by five at the Trinity Forest Invitational.

ASU’s Alex Del Rey, who failed to qualify for the team’s fall opener, the Maui Jim, closed in 66 to win medalist honors while sophomore Cameron Sisk continued his strong start to the season with a solo-third finish to go along with his season-opening victory.

2. Texas entered the season as the team to beat in men’s college golf, but the top-ranked Longhorns got off to a rough start at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational, finishing ninth in a field loaded with NCAA title contenders. Cole Hammer and Pierceson Coody each tied for ninth individually, but Texas got little from the rest of its lineup as Parker Coody, Will Thomson and Travis Vick each finished outside the top 40.

Texas is back in action at this weekend’s Nike Golf Collegiate Invitational and it will be interesting to see if coach John Fields makes any tweaks to his lineup.

3. Ole Miss won its first stroke-play title since the 2017 Rainbow Wahine Invitational by posting a 12-shot victory at the Golfweek Women’s Conference Challenge. The Rebels used an 8-under final round to finish at 15 under, beating the likes of runner-up Denver, San Diego State, Pepperdine and freshmen-heavy UCLA, which finished fifth. Freshman Andrea Lignell won her first collegiate title, birdieing the last hole to edge Denver’s Anna Zanusso by a shot.

4. Houston captured the Mason Rudolph Women’s Championship in comeback fashion on Sunday, rallying from 12 shots back on the final day to edge host Vanderbilt and Clemson by two shots. The Cougars, who had finished 10th in each of their past three trips to Vandy’s tournament, were led by Maria Jose Martinez, who carded seven birdies Sunday to cap a T-2 individual finish.

5. Golf Channel will host the East Lake Cup on Oct. 28-30 at East Lake Golf Club, and on Wednesday it announced the eight-team field for the event: men's teams Oklahoma State, Texas, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest, and women's teams Arizona, Auburn, Duke and Wake Forest.

Tweet of the week

The Oklahoma State women’s team, which will go for back-to-back wins to start the fall at next week’s Windy City Collegiate, may need a new assistant coach … because Maddi Swaney, assuming she has eligibility left, may get scooped up by the Cowgirls’ softball team.

On tap

The Nike Golf Collegiate Invitational, which begins Sunday, is the premier men’s event this coming week with Texas and reigning national champ Stanford highlighting the field. On the women’s side, the Schooner Fall Classic, which includes Texas and Florida State, and Lady Paladin Invitational, which features top-ranked Wake Forest, will each be played Friday-Sunday while Northwestern will host the Windy City Collegiate starting Monday.