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Amateur Kuehne a throwback in need of a break

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Augusta National wasn't feeling nostalgic Thursday. If it had a heart -- fat chance of that -- Trip Kuehne would have been paired with Tiger Woods, would have shot better than Arnold Palmer's age, and the Masters wouldn't be in danger of losing one of its best story lines.

But Kuehne's 78 might mean he's gone after Friday's round. From Augusta. From golf that matters.

"Obviously my chili's running a little hot," said Kuehne, who had a case of five-alarm anger after signing his scorecard.

This is it for Kuehne. He is a 35-year-old anachronism. A golf relic. He ought to be using hickory shafts.

Kuehne is retiring from competitive golf as an amateur so he can, get this, spend more time with his family. Is that Bobby Jones old school, or what?

His gallery was laughably small compared to the thousands who shadowed his 1994 U.S. Amateur nemesis Woods, but it had pedigree. Between his sister Kelli, his brother Hank, and Hank's significant other, we're talking about a combined three U.S. Amateur titles, one LPGA victory, and, oh, by the way, four Wimbledon and two U.S. Open tennis championships.

Forgot? The woman with Hank is Venus Williams.

Anyway, they were all here for the final two or, if he shoots something unconscious Friday, four rounds of Trip Kuehne's amateur career. Not that the Masters seems too interested.

In the 2008 Masters Players Guide, someone mistakenly inserted Hank's mug shot on Trip's bio. Nice photo. Wrong Kuehne.

Kuehne, the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion who also has played on three Walker Cup teams, deserves better. Instead, he's forever known as the guy who got Tiger-ized.

One minute he's 5-up on Woods with just 12 holes to play in the 1994 U.S. Amateur final at TPC Sawgrass. Then Woods wins five of the next 10 holes and stuffs a putt for the ages on the island green of No. 17. In an instant, Kuehne's life was altered in ways that reverberate even today.

"I remember Trip playing his ass off," said Kelli, who was there that August day. "Trip played so well. It was kind of Tiger's destiny to win. Trip didn't lose. Tiger beat him."

The defeat suddenly forced the three-time All-American and former Arizona State roommate of Phil Mickelson (he later transfered to Oklahoma State) to reassess his plans to possibly turn pro. Fate.

"Had the outcome been different, it could have potentially changed the decision he made with his life," said Kelli. "I think the harsh reality of it was he played the best 36 holes he could play in his life and he came up short. He didn't win. And I think that was a pretty sobering decision for him to try to make, realizing, 'Hey, I left every ounce of me out there,' and he doesn't come out with the trophy."

It would have been only right if Masters officials had remembered the Tiger-Trip connection before setting the Thursday-Friday pairings. Instead, Kuehne was part of a threesome that included early first-round leader Ian Poulter, as well as Mark O'Meara.

"I don't know if I would have been able to draw [the club] back," said Kuehne of a Tiger reunion. "But I had a great pairing."

There was a tiny bit of symmetry to the round. Augusta National was co-founded by the greatest amateur of all time, Jones, who essentially retired at age 28. And when Hank played in the 1999 Masters, his caddie was none other than Trip, and his pairing included then defending champion O'Meara.

This time Trip was inside the ropes and Hank, with Venus at his side, was outside of them. They were there to witness the end of a golfing era.

"I got goose bumps just thinking about it," said Hank, holding out his arm to prove the point.

Hank, recovering from hip surgery, is a PGA Tour pro. Kelli is on the LPGA Tour. And then there's Trip, the hedge fund manager in Dallas. There are no regrets, but there are what-ifs.

What if he had beaten Tiger? What if he had turned pro?

"Not only will I always wonder that, but I think he'll always wonder that," said Hank. "I think everyone that's ever seen him play in his career will always ask that question. But it wasn't the right decision for him."

After Thursday's 78, among the day's worst, Kuehne half-joked, "It's a good thing I don't do this for a living." Almost everything at Augusta centers around position and putting, and Kuehne had problems with both, especially with his lag putts.

"I should have been 74, 75, no sweat," said Kuehne, who last played in the Masters in 1995 (Tiger's first appearance too) and missed the cut. "I post 78, which is pathetic."

Now he has to sweat out Friday. He'll need at least even par, maybe lower to extend his career through the weekend.

Augusta National loves happy endings, but only if the players write them themselves. Kuehne tried to conjure up all the golf mojo he could.
There was Kelli, Hank and Venus. Kuehne's 8-year-old son, Will, stood next to him during the post-round interviews. Kuehne's caddie even lugged the same Walker Cup bag he used during last year's USA win at Royal County Down in Northern Ireland.

"I'm trying to use every bit of luck and positive thoughts that I have," Kuehne said.

Birdies would help too.

A distinguished amateur career is about to end. It would be nice if the game he adores gave him a pair of going-away gifts.

Saturday and Sunday.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.