Success in the cards for Kuehne thanks to surge

His name was well down the leaderboard this time, an afterthought in New Orleans. But Hank Kuehne, while likely disappointed at the outcome, had to walk away feeling pretty good about his situation. It didn't really matter that he finished tied for 43rd. And two weeks ago, that wasn't the case.

Consider that as 2003 began, Kuehne had never made it to the PGA Tour. In fact, Kuehne was relegated to a season with partial status on the developmental Nationwide Tour, where he had made just one cut in nine previous tournaments.

That was tough to swallow for a player who won the 1998 U.S. Amateur and figured a successful golf career was on the horizon.

Kuehne, whose brother, Trip, took Tiger Woods to the final match of the 1994 U.S. Amateur and whose sister, Kelli, was a women's Amateur champion as well as a winner on the LPGA Tour, suffered through injuries and lack of confidence.

Then there was the baggage of a teenage drinking problem, dyslexia and living up to his family's golf expectations. A long hitter who had trouble corralling his prodigious drives, Kuehne, who played college golf at Southern Methodist, appeared headed for another long season without any idea where it might lead.

Yet one thing is now certain: he won't be playing in golf's minor leagues. Not this year, and maybe never again.

Before an ordinary performance at the HP Classic of New Orleans, where he shot a respectable 9-under 279, Kuehne, 27, put together a couple of dream weeks.

First, he finished third on a sponsor's exemption at the BellSouth Classic last month. That earned him a spot in the Shell Houston Open -- top-10 finishers automatically get a spot in the next full-field event. Kuehne tied for second in Houston, and the $336,000 he earned helped give him special temporary status on the PGA Tour.

Goodbye, Nationwide Tour.

"With everything that's happened, it makes this feel even greater,'' Kuehne said. "I worked really hard on my game and with everything else, and now it seems like everything is coming together.''

Kuehne, who was unable to make it through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament last fall, never had to bother with the developmental tour this year. He had yet to play in a single Nationwide event, figuring he'd try his luck in a few PGA Tour events on sponsors exemptions.

He could have played the Nationwide this summer and tried to earn enough to finish among the top 20 money winners, earning a promotion to the PGA Tour for 2004.

Now, he's seemingly already taken care of that, showing again the fine line between PGA Tour success and struggling at a level below the best.

Kuehne has earned $596,100 in five events, which is enough to push him past the 150th player on the 2002 PGA Tour money list. That means membership on the tour for the rest of the season, and no need to worry about sponsor exemptions. He is scheduled to play in this week's tournament in Charlotte.

It's also probably enough money to assure finishing among the top 125 this year, meaning a full exemption in 2004.

There was never any doubting his ability.

"I watched a guy at Bay Hill on the driving range, from where he was standing to the wall at the back of the driving range was 328 yards. He carried it and the ball was going up into the maintenance area, which was another 50 yards," Arnold Palmer said, referring to Kuehne's moon-shots. "I don't think I've seen anyone hit it that far.''

If they are able to follow his long orbiting drivers, PGA Tour fans will get to see Kuehne's hit show for the rest of the year -- and probably much longer.

"I know now that at least I'm a member of the tour for this year,'' he said. "I could play the next 20 events if I wanted. That means a lot to me.''

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com