The empty chair and a yellow rose at Kelli Kuehne’s table during her induction into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame were symbolic. In attendance that night at San Antonio Country Club were all three members of what was once America’s first family of amateur golf, Kelli with brothers Trip and Hank, joined as well by their father, Ernie. Sadly missing was Kelli’s mom, Pam. The native of Crockett, Texas, passed away on Oct. 3 from multiple Myeloma cancer six days before Kelli’s induction. “I wanted it to be a celebration because mom was there for every single one of my wins,” Kelli said from her home in Argyle, Texas, earlier this week. “She missed the ceremony but saw [the induction] live.”
Pam Kuehne always seemed so alive and full of positive energy, which was reflected in what LPGA contemporary Lorie Kane referred to as “a great Texas-sized smile.” As Ernie said, “She had an incredible way of making everyone feel better.” Pam was the behind-the-scenes driving force of the six USGA national titles claimed by her children. Hank won the U.S. Amateur in 1998 at Oak Hill. Trip won the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2007 at Bandon Dunes, 13 years after taking Tiger Woods to the limit in the 1994 U.S. Amateur at TPC Sawgrass. A decade ago, he also played on his third Walker Cup team and led Texas to the USGA Men’s State Team Championship.
But the most accomplished player in the family turned out to be Kelli, who in spite of having diabetes won the U.S. Girls’ Junior in 1994 and the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1995—the first woman to do that since JoAnne Carner. A year later, Kelli won the U.S. Women’s Amateur again and also took the British Ladies Amateur title before turning pro at 19.
While hard-driving Ernie was the parent who instilled the competitiveness in the Kuehne klan, it was Pam who was, as Ernie said, “always out in front of everything.” In the day-to-day of managing three children within five years of age playing high-level amateur golf, Pam was the best at what she did. Her grand children called her “MoMo.” Her license plate was MoMo46, the number coming from the year she was born.
“She was the glue that kept everyone together,” Kelli explained. “She was the travel agent, she was the chef, she was the maid, she was the school tutor. She was the warrior in background, doing all the work behind the scenes.”
Ernie was the caddie, the guy that talked to the golf writers and befriended Earl Woods. But as he put to words after laying his wife of 38 years to rest, “She had everything to do with it. She was the most committed to make the children be the best they could be.”
Pam may have been there for all of Kelli’s wins, but Kelli remembers that she was best after the losses. On those nights after too many days away from home, she was the best cheerleader Kelli could have hoped for. Pam was there when Kelli made her pro debut as Tiger Woods’ partner in the 1996 JCPenney Classic and hit the road with $6 million in endorsement contracts. Kelli won one title in 13 years on the LPGA Tour (1999 Corning Classic) and played on two U.S. Solheim Cup teams.
Over the years, though, arguably the biggest gift that Pam gave her daughter was to teach her how to be a mom as Kelli, now 40, is a mother of two—Morgan, 8½, and Ford, 3—neither of whom are too young to appreciate how MoMo fought cancer with dignity.
“It’s peaceful in that she’s not suffering anymore,” Kelli said. “The other part of it is gut wrenchingly heartbreaking.”
Pam beat breast cancer in her 50s, and lived two years longer than expected with the Myeloma, making it to 71. “A brave soldier,” is how Ernie described her. “We all knew she was in a lot of pain, but she never complained about hurting.”
It was always about Pam’s children and grandchildren, even in her final days. Ernie told the story of Hank sleeping in her hospital room and Pam, hooked up to equipment, telling her son that she wanted to help make the bed. “To the bitter end,” Ernie said, “she was trying to do something for the kids.”
That was Pam Kuehne, and why her chair seemed so empty, even though her daughter felt like she was there.