Full Circle — Almost

Sometimes dreams have to wait

By Lee Pace

What a story it would have been — Rachel Kuehn, gestating in the womb of her mother, Brenda, as Brenda played the first two rounds of the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, growing up to become a crack golfer and qualifying herself for the 2022 return engagement of the Open at the same venue.

“I joked many times over the years to Rachel that she’s already ‘played’ in a U.S. Open,” Brenda says. “Maybe one day she’ll play in one on her own.”

Brenda and Rachel enjoyed one Sandhills golf déjà vu moment in 2020 when Rachel won the Women’s North & South Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2, a quarter-century after Brenda finished runner-up.

“I joke with my mom because she had a great finish years ago and has been holding that over my head,” Rachel said after the win. “I’m glad I could top her a little bit, but to add my name to the list of winners here is an unbelievable feeling.”

Sadly, adding to the legacy was not meant to be — at least not yet, and at least not this year at Pine Needles.

Playing in sectional qualifying at Shannopin Country Club in Pittsburgh on May 3-4, Rachel shot rounds of 74-70 for a 144 total and was tabbed second alternate for the 2022 championship, set June 2-5 at Pine Needles. A double bogey on the 13th hole in the first round and six putts that “were hard lip-outs,” in Brenda’s words, were her downfall. Though it’s not impossible, the odds of a second alternate slipping into the field are long.

Still, it’s a remarkable and evolving story of the Kuehn family of Asheville, a prominent and popular family at Biltmore Forest Country Club — dad Eric, a radiation oncologist; mom Brenda, a former Wake Forest University golfer and accomplished mid-amateur golfer; son Corrie, a former varsity golfer at Rhodes College in Memphis; Rachel, who’s just finished her junior year at Wake Forest; and son Taylor, a rising senior at Christ School in Asheville who’s committed to play golf at Samford University. 

“We’re a competitive family,” Brenda says. “Corrie was maybe 2, 3 years old and he was shooting baskets on a little goal in our living room. If he made it, I went, ‘Yay!’ If he missed it, I went, ‘Boooo.’ One day a friend was over with her little boy. She was horrified. She said, ‘You’re booing your child?’ I said, ‘Of course, it was a bad shot. How else are you going to differentiate good and bad?’”

Adds Rachel, “There’s a hole in the wall next to our ping-pong table. All I’ll say is, I didn’t put it there.”

Brenda Kuehn developed her love of sports and competition playing golf and tennis in her native Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. She particularly loved golf as her father, Jack, was a Dominican Sports Hall of Fame member and an avid golfer.

“My most precious memories with my dad were walking nine holes of golf at 5 o’clock, walking and talking, the talking more important than the golf,” she says. “I cherish those moments and the lessons I took from them.”

Brenda wanted to attend college in the United States, but the Northeast was too cold and Florida felt too much like her homeland. So she targeted the Carolinas and the smaller, private universities, and investigated Duke and Wake Forest. She fell in love with Wake Forest immediately, entered in 1983 and, as a senior in 1986, won two individual titles, was medalist in the ACC Women’s Golf Championship, and made first-team All-America. She had no grand designs on playing professional golf, but Wake Forest men’s team members and friends like Billy Andrade, Len Mattice and Jerry Haas encouraged her to give it a shot.

“I came close — I made it twice to final round of Q-school,” Brenda says. “I played the Futures Tour for two years, but I didn’t enjoy it. Playing for money changed it for me. There wasn’t the kind of camaraderie I’d known and enjoyed. Travel was hard. I was lugging one suitcase and a golf bag around and staying in stinky motels. It wasn’t the life for me.”

She then married college sweetheart Eric, and after he finished med school in 1995, they settled in Asheville. Brenda regained her amateur status and had a whirlwind decade playing amateur golf, with nine U.S. Women’s Open appearances and two Curtis Cup berths in 1996 and ’98. Corrie was 4 years old and Brenda was eight months pregnant with Rachel when the Women’s Open was held at Pine Needles May 31-June 3, 2001.

She played 36 holes with sore feet and hips, and at least twice she hit a drive and doubled over in pain from a contraction. Her hip action was limited by the size of the child she was carrying, “so it was pretty much an arms-only swing,” she says. No wonder she posted rounds of 79 and 84 to miss the cut. But the pregnant lady was great media fodder. Brenda was featured on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and interviewed by Katie Couric on The Today Show. She occasionally runs across photos from those two rounds, with Eric caddying.

“Why I wore horizontal stripes when I was so pregnant, I have no idea,” she says today. “I was wearing Eric’s size-XX shirts. I looked like a balloon. I look back and say, ‘Oh my God.’ I was so big. I cringed later when I saw a picture of me using my stomach as a table to write my score on the scorecard.”

But she had fun with it all and brought a jovial sense of humor to post-round interview sessions.

“I’m trying to save as many clips as I can to put in the baby book,” she said. “It will be a great thing for the baby to see what happened when it was moving around in here.”

Rachel was born one week after Karrie Webb was crowned Open champion and is certainly putting her own scrapbook together through her high school career and three years at Wake Forest. Biltmore Forest CC head pro Jon Rector cites times he’s started a round of golf with Rachel on the practice green and, four hours later when he’s coming up 18, she’s still there.

“She is the most intense, disciplined golfer I have ever seen,” Rector says. “She’s a sweet spirit liked by everyone. But she’s a fierce competitor and is out to shred you on the golf course.”

Just as Brenda treasured her twilights playing golf with her father, the Kuehns played together on the 1922 Donald Ross-designed course at Biltmore Forest. 

“I remember our family playing as a fivesome,” Rachel says. “I remember the Monday shootouts, walking nine holes late in the day. It was such a special place to grow up and have your first memories of golf.”

Brenda won the 1998 and 2001 Carolinas Women’s Amateur, and Rachel added her name to the trophy in 2017. Rachel won the first college tournament she participated in (the ANNIKA Intercollegiate) and, as a junior in 2021-22, she scorched the UNC Finley Golf Course with a women’s course-record 63 in winning the individual title of the Ruth’s Chris Tar Heel Invitational.

The highlight so far was last summer’s trip to Wales to participate in the Curtis Cup. Rachel was certainly well-versed in the event’s prestige. Brenda secured the clinching point in the 1998 matches at The Minikahda Club in Minnesota.

“It was the 17th hole and I had a left-to-right 4-footer,” Brenda says. “I didn’t want to hit it, but I knew I didn’t want to play the 18th hole. I’ve shared my entire Curtis Cup experience with her since she was young. Rachel definitely ‘got it’ when she was named to the team. You have arrived in golf if you make the Curtis Cup.”

Rachel lost her match in opening-day foursomes with partner Emilia Migliaccio. But then that pair won on Friday and Rachel partnered with Jen Castle to win a Friday four-ball match. Rachel won 2-up in her singles match against Louise Duncan, and her point proved the clincher in the Americans collecting a 12 1/2 – 7 1/2 victory.

“The Curtis Cup was everything I was told it would be and more,” Rachel says. “It was weird traveling with COVID. Our team was kind of in its own bubble over there. But to represent the United States, I can’t think of any greater honor.”

While Rachel might not be playing in her second Open at Pine Needles this time, there will certainly be more opportunities — for the Kuehns and the Women’s Open. PS

Lee Pace has written about golf in the Sandhills since the late 1980s and has covered three U.S. Women’s Opens at Pine Needles—1996, 2001 and 2007.

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