News & ToursFebruary 14, 2008

She Stole The Spotlight

KAHUKU, Hawaii -- Let's go back to Leilei's Bar. Let's go back to Tuesday night. Let's revisit the conversation Kelli Kuehne had with Beth Daniel when she told the captain of the 2009 U.S. Solheim Cup team, "I'm going to be playing for you next year." And let's listen once again to the words of Cristie Kerr that night when she said, "Kelli is going to have a big year. Trust me." The leader board after one round of the SBS Open makes those words look like more than mere barroom boasts.

Kuehne and Kerr, friends since their days in junior golf when they were 12 years old and fresh from a ski vacation along with Kerr's husband, Erik Stevens, looked like world-class seers after Kelli took advantage of a morning tee time and benign wind to post a five-under-par 67. With only 36 holes left in the three-round tournament, Kuehne has positioned herself nicely to be in the hunt for the Saturday finish on the north shore of Oahu.

For one day anyway Kuehne stole the spotlight from the glamour threesome of Annika Sorenstam, Natalie Gulbis and defending SBS Open champion Paula Creamer. Sorenstam, sabotaged by a balky putter, and Creamer finished at two-under-par 70, three strokes behind Kuehne. Gulbis struggled to a 73. All three get the advantage of playing in the morning on Friday, when the wind is usually calm, while Kuhne takes on the Palmer Course in the more blustery afternoon.

If Kuehne is to make a serious run here, and if she was near her TV set Thursday afternoon after finishing her round, she got a sense of what it is going to take. Sorenstam and Creamer both shot under par despite each making a double bogey on No. 17 to squander an opportunity after both snaked in long birdie putts on No. 16 to creep within two shots of Kuehn'e lead. Both got back one stroke when they made birdies on the final hole.

Sorenstam's round was sort of a synopsis of her injury-plagued 2007 season. Every time she got some momentum going she would make a mistake. She started her round with a birdie on No. 1 but followed that with a three-putt on the second hole for a bogey, missing from three feet. The double bogey on No. 17 was set up by a drive into the fairway bunker on the par-4 hole, and then a blunder with her wedge when she chipped from a swale to a short-side pin only to watch the ball roll back to her feet.

While Kuehne got a break Thursday with the late-round mistakes by Sorenstam and Creamer, she can pretty much count on the fact that both will make a run at her in Friday's second round. There is a real electricity when Sorenswtam and Creamer play against each other, a rivalry hatched in 2005 when Creamer, then a 19-year-old rookie, challenged the best the world's No. 1 on a rules issue. They'll play in the same threesome again on Friday.

While Sorenstam is trying to bounce back from her ruptured disc demolished 2007 season and Creamer is trying to build on a three-year career in which she has already won four LPGA events, Kuehne is looking to become relevant again. Make no mistake about it, this is an important year for her. She fought her way onto the Solheim Cup team in 2002 and 2003, but there has not been a victory carved into her resume since the 1999 LPGA Corning Classic, the only win in her 10-year career. Much, much more was expected from the Kuehne and now, still only 30 years old, it could be that she is ready to fulfill her potential.

The feisty Texan has impressive bloodlines with her brother Hank, a pro, and her other brother Trip, an amateur who could have been a pro had he chosen. And Kelli has been no slouch herself, winning the U.S. Girls Junior in 1994 and the U.S. Women's Amateur in '95 and '96. A week after winning at Corning in 1999, Kuehne made a great run at the U.S. Women's Open at Old Waverly in Mississippi, finishing third. But then she hit a brick wall.

There were top-10 finishes in the Open in '00, '01 and '02 but nothing better than T-20 since in any of the four major championships. In her last 59 LPGA tournaments has missed 35 cuts and had to go back to Q school last fall, were she finished fourth to get her playing card for this season.

The first step in the long road back was to identify the problem, and a look at the stats told Kuehne what she needed to work on. Last year she drove it long enough and straight enough to be 36th on tour in greens hit in regulation. The problem was that she was 125th in putts per GIR. She shot in the 60s only five times all year.

"It was a hard off season," she said about her intense focus on her short game, working with Tracy Phillips, her short-game coach who caddied for Kuehne when she won in 1999 and is back on the bag this week at the Turtle Bay Resort. "It was a lot of work but very rewarding." That work got her through Q school, and it has gotten her off to a good start at the SBS Open. It's a first step in a long season that could be the most important in Kuehne's career.

--Ron Sirak

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