Layne Savoie, a bright young instructor who works out of the Chuck Cook Golf Academy in Austin, Texas, is standing with Hank Kuehne on the practice tee at the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston in September, watching him scald 315-yard drives, one after another. Kuehne, at six-foot-two and 205 pounds, is large and strong for a Tour pro, but it doesn't look to Savoie as if he's swinging very hard.
"Hank, what gear are you in?" Savoie asks.
Acquaintances since they played on the juniors circuit in the mid-1980s, they had been working together off and on during the summer. Kuehne (rhymes with "beanie"), the PGA Tour's leader in driving distance for two straight years, ponders a second and says, "Like, third."
"Bull!" Savoie shouts. "There is no way the ball is going 300 to 320 and you're telling me you're only in third gear. What's that, about 70 percent?" Kuehne agrees. "Well, let me see 100 percent, and then maybe I'll believe you're in third gear," Savoie shoots back.
Kuehne tees up another ball and shows Savoie fifth gear. His swing looks just as oiled and effortless as before, but this time the ball flies about 360 yards. "Okay, okay," Savoie concedes. "Now I believe you."
"I don't know what the limit is," Savoie says a few weeks later. "Hank is the Nolan Ryan of golf. People cannot comprehend how strong he is." Actually, what's hard to believe is how silkily he transforms that strength into a blistering clubhead speed approaching 140 miles per hour and an initial ball velocity of 180 m.p.h. It's almost a stealth swing. By comparison, Mount Saint Daly practically blows steam out of his ears and winds so far past level he looks like he's going to hit the ball 300 yards backward. Tiger's motion, meanwhile, has become sudden and violent—the golf swing as nuclear chain reaction.
"A lot of guys who play with me on Tour for the first time say, 'He doesn't swing hard at it,'" observes Kuehne, a Texan whose deep voice and burred cadence sound like Tom Brokaw. "It's just that it flies fifty yards past where you think it's coming down."
Hank Kuehne has become the poster boy for a new breed of long hitter—the young gun for whom extraordinary length is just a fact of life, the only air he's ever breathed. Tiger seemed otherworldly when he dismantled Augusta in 1997, triggering fits of "Tiger-proofing" golf courses. But it's not just Tiger anymore. Courses these days need to be generation-proofed. College and even high school players are booming the ball as never before (see box, page 111). Kuehne may be Tiger's age—both turn thirty this year—but the way he makes 320-yard drives seem like no big deal could signal a new paradigm in the game.
In 2003, Kuehne's first full year on the Tour, he not only dethroned Daly, who had led in average driving distance eleven of the previous twelve years, but he also set a new record of 321.4 yards per drive that was almost fifteen yards per poke longer than Daly's best of 306.8 in 2002.
Kuehne (inevitably nicknamed "Hammerin' Hank") has never sought great length in his golf swing, it's just always been there—part of the golf gift that runs in the family. His long-hitting older brother, Trip, finished second to Tiger in the 1994 U.S. Amateur; his younger sister, Kelli, although not an especially long hitter, is now in her eighth season on the LPGA Tour. The lore relating to Hank begins with him winning a long-drive contest when he was eleven with a smack of 275 yards. The next year he hit one 289. At Southern Methodist University he tied for first at the 1996 Southwest Conference championship packing nothing but irons. Winning the 1998 U.S. Amateur got him into the 1999 Masters, where he missed the cut but is remembered for hitting range balls onto Washington Road, clearing a sixty-five-foot-high net 285 yards from the practice tee—with a three-wood.
Kuehne's road to the Tour was not without incident. In interviews he candidly discusses his longstanding alcohol problem, which he seriously confronted only after running a stop sign at 65 m.p.h. and hitting another car head-on. Miraculously no one was killed. That was in 1995, and he has stayed sober ever since. In college he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), which he now keeps under control with powerful medication and help from sports psychologist Dr. Fran Pirozzolo. "I've got a lot of miles on me for twenty-nine," Kuehne says wryly.
Three years ago this June, the golfer married his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Feltman. "She has played a huge part" in his mental turnaround, Pirozzolo says. "Nicole is such a positive person, and so encouraging." Nicole often accompanies Hank on the road. Both have a strong fashion sense and a penchant for cutting-edge clothes like those from one of Kuehne's new sponsors, Swedish designer Johan Lindeberg (also sported by Hank's friend Jesper Parnevik). "Hank's my number-one fashion buddy," says Nicole. "He loves to shop, and he has a great eye."
Kuehne radiates an easy, low-key charm. His galleries pull for him, as they do for Daly, as an everyman. "I've been through a lot of things, just like everybody else," Kuehne reflects. "So I'm easier to identify with than guys who never really had anything go wrong, ever, you know?"