1996 JCPenny Classic, Innisbrook
I had the good fortune to play in the LPGA/PGA JC Penney Classic Pro-Am in December 1996 at the Innisbrook Copperhead course in Florida. How I got there is another story. I was even luckier to catch rookie Tiger Woods and partner Kelli Kuehne walking off the 18th green to my position at the practice putting green and I got their autographs for my tournament book. Both of them had also just signed Nike contracts. Kelli didn’t have a separate photo page like Tiger’s two page spread, so I asked her to sign his first page. She added a whimsical smiley face for fun. Kelli wore a size XS men’s shirt at the tournament because Nike didn’t have a women’s line yet. It was still too big for her at 5’ 2”! Tiger recently walked off the Copperhead course 22 years later finishing tied for second while still wearing the famous swoosh!
My most vivid experience that week was standing on the first tee inside the ropes with people crowding both sides of the fairway to see our playing pros, Steve Stricker and Vicki Goetze. The announcer called out my obscure name heralding from Kansas City as faint clapping echoed in my head. My flash prayer at the time was for God to protect those poor innocents in front of me as I hit my drive. Fortunately, my ball stayed inside the ropes even though we didn’t play it!
After watching Tiger’s return to Copperhead, I wondered what had become of Kelli so I did a little googling. Kelli and brothers Hank and Trip all won USGA amateur titles as their dad connected them with trainer Hank Haney, a future Tiger coach. Tiger famously came from behind to defeat Trip in the 1994 US Amateur. Trip later made the prophetic comment, “I let the Tiger legend grow that day". Kelli had early diabetes but also had the potential to be Tiger’s LPGA equivalent. She won a lone 1999 LPGA tournament before a severe wrist injury ended her career in 2009.
None of the Kuehne siblings realized their ultimate potential in golf and they went on their separate ways as life happened, but they enjoyed a Texas golf reunion back in 2016. By that time, even Tiger’s golfing career was in the balance. Mine never existed but I did have my 15 seconds of fame on that first tee box! Fame and fortune are very elusive human trophies and it seems best to keep them in perspective. That works on many levels.