Kuehne Makes Long-Awaited USGA Return at U.S. Senior Open

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jun 26, 2023 | Stevens Point, Wis.

Kuehne Makes Long-Awaited USGA Return at U.S. Senior Open

As Trip Kuehne made his way through player registration at SentryWorld for the 43rd U.S. Senior Open Championship on Monday, a wave of excitement shot through his entire body. Picking up his contestant badge, signing posters and player scrolls, chatting with USGA officials and volunteers brought back a flood of cherished memories.

For so many years, beginning with the 1989 U.S. Junior Amateur at Singing Hills in El Cajon, Calif., continuing with a memorable championship-match loss to a guy named Tiger Woods in the 1994 U.S. Amateur, then to a trio of Walker Cup appearances and eventually winning that elusive USGA title at the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon, Kuehne had been accustomed to such rituals. Competing at national championships was in his DNA.

But like Bob Jones in 1930, Kuehne walked away from competitive golf after playing the 2008 Masters as the reigning Mid-Am champion. Unlike Jones, who retired from competitive golf after completing his historic Grand Slam, the native Texan wasn’t chasing a law career. Kuehne had already established a successful investment management firm (Double Eagle Capital). But with a young son, Will, about to enter his formidable years as a burgeoning football star, Kuehne didn’t want to be one of those parents who regretted missing important family moments.

So, one of the country’s best amateurs stopped playing completely as Will earned a Division I scholarship to the University of  North Texas as a quarterback. (He has since transferred to Southern Methodist University where the 23-year-old is working on a second master’s degree, this one in sports management, while switching positions to wide receiver. He still has two years of college eligibility.)

As Will’s football career reached the back nine, Kuehne began getting the itch to return to the competitive game. A family trip to the 2021 Walker Cup at Seminole planted the seed for a “comeback.” Spending a few days watching the world’s best amateurs and being in the company of so many ex-Walker Cuppers gave Kuehne, now 51, the desire to return to the ring.

He missed the days when he’d leave the office at 4:30 p.m. and hit balls for a couple of hours to clear his mind before returning to his residence in the Dallas Metroplex. Golf had defined Kuehne, and the game still coursed through his veins. In the 1990s, the Kuehne clan was one of the faces of golf. Sister Kelli won three USGA titles – the 1994 U.S. Girls’ Junior and consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateurs in 1995-96 – and brother Hank claimed the 1998 U.S. Amateur title with Trip on the bag. Trip would get his title nine years later with a 9-and-7 pasting of Dan Whitaker, making them the first trio of siblings with USGA championship victories.

Trip was the only one not to turn professional. To this day, he says the loss to Woods in the 1994 Amateur final at TPC Sawgrass – a match he held as much as a 5-up lead before Tiger’s remarkable second-18 rally – was a blessing. Had the Oklahoma State All-American won that day, his hand would have been forced, and he likely would have turned pro, something that never was in Trip’s grand plan.

Trip Kuehne (right) enjoyed a practice round on Monday at SentryWorld with major champion Darren Clarke. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

Trip Kuehne (right) enjoyed a practice round on Monday at SentryWorld with major champion Darren Clarke. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

Kuehne instead remained amateur and continued to pile up successes. He was named to three USA Walker Cup Teams – the last in 2007 – and competed on one World Amateur Team (2006). To this date, he’s the only player in USGA history to have qualified for a U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Junior, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Amateur Public Links and U.S. Mid-Amateur, while also competing in the USGA State Team, Walker Cup and World Amateur Team Championship. He’ll be exempt for the U.S. Senior Amateur when he becomes age-eligible in 2027. The only missing USGA event is the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, which wasn’t established until 2015.

“The Four-Ball has been my Achilles heel,” said Kuehne, whose made a couple of attempts to qualify. “Players are so good [now], whether it is senior amateur golf, senior professional golf, ladies golf, girls golf, boys golf, college golf...Everybody is good.”

His first goal upon turning 50 was qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open and British Senior Open. He failed to accomplish the feat a year ago, but when he posted a 73 at Arcola Country Club in Paramus, N.J., on May 23, he was back in a USGA championship.

“It’s exciting,” said Kuehne after flying in from Texas on Monday. “It’s only my fourth tournament in 12 years. It’s fun. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Somebody said, ‘You played pretty well last year,’ and I responded, ‘Yeah, I played OK, but it was kind of a waste because all I wanted to do was qualify for [the U.S. Senior Open] and Senior British Open to make it all worthwhile.’”

Anyone who has ever been around Kuehne knows he never enters anything half-asked. When he played his first serious tournament, the 2022 Coleman Invitational, he tied for 13th. Earlier this year, he tied for sixth in the same mid-amateur event he captured in 2003 and 2004. Kuehne, in fact, finds as much enjoyment in the preparation as the actual competition.

Even with his home course, the Vaquero Club (his brother Hank was recently named the director of golf), going through an extensive renovation, Kuehne practiced at several other area clubs, including Shady Oaks with PGA Tour pro Ryan Palmer.

Trip Kuehne (right) joined siblings Hank (left) and Kelli as a USGA champion in 2007. (USGA/John Mummert)

Trip Kuehne (right) joined siblings Hank (left) and Kelli as a USGA champion in 2007. (USGA/John Mummert)

“I said all the time that golf was my security blanket,” said Kuehne. “For some people it was drinking a couple of beers [after work] and for some it was working out. For me, I cleared my head hitting golf balls for an hour and a half or two hours, and when I came home at 6:30 I was ready to be with my family. I had that structure. I missed that structure when I [retired from competitive golf]. It was OK, it’s 4:30, I am supposed to be at the golf course, now what do I do? I put the time and effort to it. It was important for me to qualify for this tournament.”

In a way, the U.S. Senior Open is sort of a reunion tour for Kuehne. Many of these competitors are guys he went up against in junior, amateur and college golf. Justin Leonard, the 1992 U.S. Amateur champion and 1997 British Open champion, was a Texas rival. Kuehne first met two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els when he was a 16-year-old South African on the rise. Kuehne and defending champion Padraig Harrington spent several hours after a Sunday Walker Cup Closing Ceremony chatting in the Royal Porthcawl clubhouse after a rare Great Britain and Ireland win, and over the years, they have renewed that friendship.

But after all the handshakes, chats and practice-round fodder – he planned to play nine holes with two-time U.S. Senior Open champion Kenny Perry as well as former Stanford players Notah Begay III, Brad Lanning and William Yanagisawa – Kuehne knows his primary function is to compete, and therein lies the uncertainty. 

In 2007, Trip Kuehne joined siblings Hank and Kelli as a USGA champion when he claimed the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Bandon Dunes. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

In 2007, Trip Kuehne joined siblings Hank and Kelli as a USGA champion when he claimed the U.S. Mid-Amateur. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

“I was really good 16 years ago,” he said. “When I’d make a mistake, I would say, ‘OK the next shot has to be good.’

“I’ll bleed out now. I’ll make a bunch of bogeys in a row. My preparation [for this week] is better than any event I have played in my entire life. On the driving range, I’m ready. And I shot some nice scores in the last week.”

Physically, Kuehne said he’s never worked harder than over the last nine months since undergoing knee surgery from an injury he suffered during Senior British Open qualifying last summer. Everything, he says, is ahead of schedule.

Wife Dusti and young son Will joined Trip Kuehne at the 2003 Walker Cup Match at Ganton Golf Club in England. (USGA/John Mummert)

Wife Dusti and young son Will joined Trip Kuehne at the 2003 Walker Cup Match at Ganton Golf Club in England. (USGA/John Mummert)

But once the peg goes into the ground on Thursday, Kuehne will enter new territory, something he hasn’t felt in 15 years. Yes, there will be butterflies like any other major competition.

It also happens to be the 20th anniversary of Kuehne earning low-amateur honors in the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, about a 4-hour drive south of SentryWorld. Only two other players have been low amateur in the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open, Vinny Giles and Jeff Wilson.

“There’s a little bit of scared to death,” said Kuehne of his mindset. “It would be really cool to be low am in the U.S. Senior Open. If I play really well, who knows what can happen. If I play poorly, my buddies can start at the bottom and work their way up.”

Longtime friend Steve Johnson, who caddied for Kuehne in his first USGA championship 34 years ago and his last major competitive event (2008 Masters) will be on his bag. Hank will be here until Wednesday helping Trip prepare, while father Ernie, wife Dusti and son Will are here to provide support.

All would dearly love nothing more than to see Trip add another notch to his impressive USGA résumé.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.