2002: Positive prognosis

Positive medical reports and a dramatic upward surge in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index suggest long-hitting Hank Kuehne, the 1998 U.S. Amateur champion, is poised to finally fulfill his vast promise in 2003 and beyond.

Healthy for the first time since his second tournament as a professional in summer 1999, Kuehne dominated the 2002 Canadian Tour, leading in earnings and stroke average. In 12 starts, he had two victories, two seconds, a fourth and a fifth. Moreover, he had two top-25 finishes in six PGA Tour starts.

Kuehne, though, will have more work to do next year. He made it through the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament late this fall before finishing well out of the top 35 at the final stage of Q-School in December. He will have a partial exemption on the Nationwide Tour in 2003.

Still, as a result of his 2002 success, Kuehne made the largest move upward in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index among those ranked at year’s start, advancing 692 places to No. 218. He edged out European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance, who moved up 626 spots to 110th.

Kuehne, 27, owes his improvement to several factors, most notably improved health. After injuring his left shoulder three years ago, he tried to play through the pain, finally surrendering at 2000 U.S. Open sectional qualifying, where, in his words, he hit drives only 150 yards, couldn’t raise his arm over his head and walked off a course for the first time in his life.

Surgery to repair a torn labrum and torn bicep muscle followed in June and, after reinjury, in November 2000. Among other things, a nerve and tendon were relocated and bone chips removed. He admittedly tried to return too quickly in 2001 and became frustrated by his inconsistency, and as he played injured, bad habits crept into his swing. The low point perhaps came when he faltered badly with two three-putts and a bogey-double bogey finish on the last six holes at the second stage of 2001 Q-School. He barely missed a trip to the final stage.

“I felt like somebody ripped my heart out,” Kuehne said. “I decided at the end of last year that if I (couldn’t) put the club where I want to, I’m quitting.”

Instead, his life came together nicely last winter. His body finally healed. He got married in January and moved from Dallas to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He began working on his game much more, sometimes up to 10-12 hours per day, and was helped by Kevin Smeltz, his fourth teacher in the last several years. He finally started driving the ball straight, thanks in large part to Jack Nicklaus’ insistence that Kuehne weaken his left-hand grip. Nicklaus, a fellow Bear’s Club member, gave Kuehne the tip during a round the pair played together. Hence Kuehne’s ball flight went from a draw to a fade, and he has been able to eliminate hooks. He had by far his most consistent season.

“I drove it well all year,” he said. “I’m finally able to match my arm speed with my body speed and fast hips. Fading the ball has made a huge difference. Before, I used to miss it right and left. I went from somebody who hit it far and didn’t know if he’d hit the fairway to someone who hits it really far and straight.”

Kuehne is a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink since Feb. 3, 1995. He says he hasn’t had a craving since he left rehab that year. And his Attention Deficit Disorder is under control, thanks to medication he still takes. Now his golf game is cruising, and he is nothing if not happy.

“My life is great in every aspect,” he said. “I have no regrets. Most everybody thinks everything has gone wrong, but things that have happened in my life don’t bother me. It’s just been a long process, one that will only be sweeter in the end.”

Kuehne was hardly alone in ascending sharply up the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings in 2002.

Rich Beem moved up 141 places to 71st thanks largely to improvement in his putting, especially with regard to pace. He parlayed confidence gained from winning The International into an improbable victory at the PGA Championship two weeks later. He entered the PGA ranked 150th in putts per round, but had the fewest putts at the year’s final major.

Although not as meteoric as Kuehne’s or as dramatic at Beem’s, Patrick Moore’s 236-spot climb quietly completed a long journey. Moore, 32, who began the season 374th in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, won three times on the Buy.com Tour in 2002, including a grinding triumph at the season-ending Buy.com Tour Championship, to claim that circuit’s money title and earn a PGA Tour card for the first time.

Prior to his 2002 breakthrough, Moore’s best Buy.com finish was a tie for 50th at the 1999 Dakota Dunes Open.

“I don’t think I did anything different this year . . . maybe made a few more putts,” he said. “I don’t have your typical golf swing. You wouldn’t look at me and think I’m a world-beater.”

Maybe not, but Moore ranked in the top 10 in three essential categories in 2002, finishing second in putting (1.735), seventh in driving accuracy (72.1 percent) and ninth in GIR (68.8 percent).

On the opposite end, Brian Watts, the 1998 British Open runner-up, fell the farthest out of the top 100, dropping 327 spots to 416th. Watts underwent hip surgery in 2001, battled back problems this year, underwent a bone scan in November and will receive at least a minor medical extension in 2003. After falling from 112th to 181st in earnings, he returned to Q-School to try to earn a full-time card for ’03 (Results, p30). His back problems led to ball-striking woes throughout the year: His driving distance fell 9 yards to 272.8, his driving accuracy rank slipped from 113th to 158th and his GIR percentage dipped from 65.7 to 61.2.

Larry Mize (167th to unranked) didn’t play until late March after suffering a cracked scapula in his shoulder and a broken rib in December 2001 when a horse he was riding stepped into a hole and threw him. He missed the cut in his first nine starts, then suffered a lower back injury at the Greater Milwaukee Open – where he made his only cut – and was out the rest of the year. He did not finish in the top 125 for the first time in 21 Tour seasons and was granted a major medical extension for 2003.

Ryder Cupper Hal Sutton slipped from 26th to 285th largely because of sleep apnea, a condition that limited his sleep to 3-4 hours per night the first part of the year. His renowned iron game also was off (down from 71.1 to 65.7 percent in GIR) and his putting average rank fell from 149th to 201st, causing his scoring average to go up 1.4 strokes. As a result, he missed 15 cuts in 2002, compared to only three the year before.

David Duval, the 2001 British Open champion, broke off a long-term relationship with his fiancee early in the year and never got on track, falling from sixth to 62nd. Statistics reveal that his ball-striking was off more than his putting. He hit 3.2 percent fewer fairways and 3.5 percent fewer greens. All told, his scoring average was a stroke higher, he missed eight cuts and he had only two top 10s.

The player who dropped the farthest and still remained ranked was Buy.com veteran John Kernohan (down 758 spots to No. 976). Kernohan, 38, playing on a medical extension, never regained his game after a left hip injury in 2001. He made only two cuts in 20 starts, as his ball-striking (53.5 and 55.7 percent in fairways and greens hit, respectively) just wasn’t the same.

Thankfully, for Kernohan and others whose 2002 performances plummeted, 2003 is just around the corner.

– Rex Hoggard contributed

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