Trip Kuehne is taking the road less traveled, which leads him most weekdays to The Tower on Lake Carolyn in Irving, Texas. In a modest office on the building's 18th floor, the president and senior managing partner of Double Eagle Capital Management goes to work behind a desk with two computer screens, each providing the latest business news. To his right on a wood table sit two more monitors streaming stock quotes and an open laptop that beeps whenever instant messages arrive. To his left, visible through a glass wall, are three other displays containing assorted graphs and charts. Straight ahead, just inside the doorway, there's a television tuned to CNBC.
No matter where he turns, Kuehne is awash with financial information, sliced and diced into every form imaginable. Just the way he likes it.
"Investing is a lot like golf," says Kuehne, eyes darting between screens. "Success is a result of how much work you put in, if you're prepared and whether you're willing to dot the i's and cross the t's."
The comparison to golf is no coincidence, even if Kuehne's office offers few signs that the 34-year-old Dallas native who occupies it has been among the game's best amateurs for more than a decade, the rare college All-American who eschewed professional golf for a "real" job. Hidden among the high-tech tools are a first-place trophy from the 2003 Coleman Invitational, a plaque from the Southern International Four-Ball and a photo with his Oklahoma State teammates the day they won the 1995 NCAA Championship.Whether he came to this conclusion about investing and golf while participating in a conference call with money managers or after reaching a 590-yard par 5 in two to win a tournament doesn't matter. What is important is his unfailing belief in the axiom. Hard work is something Ernest W. Kuehne III has never been afraid of.Golf WorldKuehne lost to Woods in the final of the 1994 U.S. Amateur.
Which is a good thing considering his current situation: Nearly two years removed from starting his own money-management firm, Kuehne is searching for more backers to help reach his goal of having roughly $200 million invested in Double Eagle's Ace Fund, an access fund allocating capital among various premier hedge-fund managers. To date he has nearly $30 million under management, explaining in part the gray hairs peeking out the sides of his flattop.
"This is the year I find out whether this is just a business that works on paper and is a little mom-and-pop shop or [if] I can turn it into something big," says Kuehne, who hasn't drawn a paycheck since founding the three-person company, lucrative prior posts at White Rock Capital and Legg Mason affording him such a luxury. "I believe in this product. Now it's a matter of going out and finding people to market to who also believe in it and can become investors."
So, how does he intend to do it? The oldest of Ernie and Pam Kuehne's three celebrated golfing children, who came to national prominence as the vanquished foe in Tiger Woods' miraculous comeback during the 1994 U.S. Amateur final at TPC Sawgrass, doesn't hesitate to reveal a key portion of his strategy: competing in amateur golf events.
"If I can stay in the public eye and play well, hopefully it will open up a door where I can get in to see people others might not be able to," says Kuehne, who has already been bending the ears of Dallas' movers and shakers (his contact list includes T. Boone Pickens and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, to name two)."If it wasn't for golf, I wouldn't know some of these [hedge-fund managers]. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to sit down and even talk with them." Why can't it be the same with potential investors?
Of course, trying to become the ultimate business golfer isn't just good for Kuehne's bottom line. If he could earn a spot on his third U.S. Walker Cup team this year (a legitimate possibility given he was selected for the three-man World Amateur squad in the fall of 2006), or win the U.S. Amateur title he so covets (perhaps too much), he could help cement a legacy as one of the premier career amateurs of his time. The family trophy case, already housing brother Hank's 1998 Amateur title and sister Kelli's three USGA honors (1994 Girls' Junior; 1995, 1996 Women's Amateur), would be filled. Perhaps, too, Kuehne could help give new life to a dying breed of golfer.
"In today's world he's an anomaly," says Stan Druckenmiller, a long-time confidant who runs Duquesne Capital Management, of Kuehne's continued amateur status. "I respect and admire him for it."
All he has to do now is make the time to keep his game sharp enough to compete against players nearly half his age; stay on a first-name basis with his wife, Dusti, and 7-year-old son, Will; and overcome the thing he has never been quite comfortable at: asking people for money.
"I've never had to lay anything totally on the line," Kuehne said. "With all this, I've had to lay things on the line."
"It's great that Trip has remained an amateur," contends Barry Van Gerbig, Kuehne's playing partner in the National Senior-Junior Team Amateur event for eight years running and a past president at Seminole Golf Club, "but his life probably would be a hell of a lot simpler if he had turned pro like Hank and Kelli."Surely, that is what everyone assumed would happen once Kuehne finished school in Stillwater, with a BA in psychology (3.85 GPA) and an MBA. After all, he possessed the power game ideal for success on the PGA Tour -- he still bombs the ball more than 300 yards off the tee -- not to mention the good looks and confident swagger agents would run naked around Augusta National to represent.Golf WorldKuehne is one of very few "career amateurs" around today.
"There's no doubt he would have made it on tour," says Hank, a tour member since 2003. "To this day he still beats guys we grew up with who turned pro when they're back in Dallas. But he's seen what Kelli and I go through, the grind of life on tour, and said no thanks."
Unlike his siblings Kuehne couldn't stomach the idea of being on the road 30 weeks a year, having the USA Today serve as his hometown newspaper. "That wasn't my dream. I dreamed of being involved with Wall Street," says Kuehne, whose interest in the financial world began when he won a stock-picking contest in the fourth grade. "I wouldn't take Phil Mickelson's paycheck or Tiger Woods' paycheck for the life they have to lead."
Instead, Kuehne took inspiration from the likes of Vinny Giles, Danny Green, John "Spider" Miller and George "Buddy" Marucci, career amateurs who found golf no less fulfilling as an avocation than a vocation. With some creativity and discipline, you could make enough money in business to finish inside the PGA Tour's top-125 and still play golf at an elite level at some of the world's best courses without all the canceled flights and hotel rooms.
Says Marucci: "Just because you're a golfer doesn't mean you want to play every week for a paycheck."
By 2001, after one flirtation with a possible pro career (he took the summer off from the investment world to get his game in shape with an eye toward that fall's Q-school, before deciding against it), Kuehne had committed to becoming the best amateur in the world. His specific goal: victory at the 2003 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont Country Club, a course he fell in love with after numerous rounds there with Druckenmiller, a club member.
To accomplish this, Kuehne put in place a regimen he follows mostly to this day. During his playing season, which goes from April through October, he competes in six to eight events. In those months, he gets to his office around 7 a.m., attends to the day job until 5 p.m., then ducks to the gym or heads to nearby Las Colinas CC to hit balls. By around 7 p.m., he's back home for dinner with Dusti and Will.
"I have to try to get as much done in an hour and a half or two hours as these college kids are getting in from noon to 6 o'clock," says Kuehne, who spends between $50,000 to $75,000 each year to compete at the elite amateur level. In addition to travel, club fees and instruction (he has worked with Hank Haney since he was a teenager), his expenses include physical therapists and trainers monitoring his conditioning and a local doctor who performs extensive blood work to identify the right nutrients and supplements Kuehne needs to maximize his performance.
"It's not for everybody, but it's what I need to do to prepare," says Kuehne, who mostly puts the clubs away during the winter. "I need to stay busy. I genuinely believe if I don't have a lot of things going on, I'm not effective businesswise, golfwise, familywise, whatever it is."
Suffice it to say, his preparations looked flawless as summer 2003 arrived. Kuehne qualified for the U.S. Open and earned low amateur honors at Olympia Fields that June. Two months later at Oakmont, he breezed through stroke-play qualifying and won his first-round match, shooting the equivalent of four under par for 54 holes, 10 strokes better than his next challenger, collegian David Oh.
Yet his second-round match proved a microcosm of his USGA career: Relatively unheralded opponent gets fortuitous breaks, capitalizes and sends Kuehne home shaking his head, Oh claiming victory, 3 and 1. "That was the single hardest thing I ever had to deal with in golf, worse than losing to Tiger. I had sunk my life into it and was playing the best I'd ever played," says Kuehne, who had ended every practice session for the previous year by hitting an Oakmont-logoed ball. "It took me some time to get over, but it proved to me something. I learned how important this game is to me, how much I truly cared about golf."
In many ways, the U.S. Amateur is Kuehne's white whale. "Everybody knows how obsessed he is with it, but nobody really talks about it," says Dusti, a basketball player at Oklahoma State who met Kuehne when the men's golf team scrimmaged the women's hoops team in 1995 and married him a year later. Where Kuehne seemingly has trouble in the tournament, as well as the U.S. Mid-Amateur, is that the match-play format frequently leaves him a victim of his own notoriety. Being as close to a household name as any amateur, he typically faces opponents who are gunning for him, making it difficult if Kuehne is not on his game. Case in point: the quarterfinals of last year's U.S. Amateur at Hazeltine National, where Kuehne faced little-known Missouri senior John Kelly. After just six holes, Kuehne found himself 3 down and fighting for survival. While still 2 down on the 16th hole, he hit a perfect drive on the course's signature par 4, only to shock everyone by shanking his approach into Lake Hazeltine and ending his hopes for victory.
"I think he always thinks he has that extra gear that nobody else does," Dusti said. " 'I can put it into sixth and get this.' "
"Trip has been blessed with the talent to pull off practically any golf shot he wants," said Tom Barton, his former boss at White Rock Capital, "but it's also a curse because he doesn't have the time to perfect them and do it consistently."
Kuehne admits there is some truth in Barton's statement. "I've gotten in my own way at times," he said. "I've made more double and triple bogeys than any supposedly good golfer out there. But I think I'm starting to understand that. I'm maturing as a golfer. It's better if I'm 140 yards away from the hole in the fairway than 110 yards but in the rough."
Even if a USGA title should never come to pass, Kuehne has a chance to have a significant impact on the amateur game. By competing with an (a) next to his name all these years, he has become a torchbearer for traditionalists and a sounding board for golf's next generation, roles he embraces.
"He's well respected because of the decisions he's made," Marucci says. "He has a lot to offer these young men as far as insight and advice as to where they should look and where they shouldn't look as far as a career in golf."
The question arises: How much longer can Kuehne keep all this up, balancing work, family and play? Provided he still feels competitive, he says he will continue to put the tee in the ground. "But if things happen with the business, who knows? I might be done at the end of this year."
Hearing of her husband's response, Dusti laughs. "Yeah, he might quit for a while, but he's fooling himself. He needs golf."
Maybe now more than ever. As his passion and profession intersect, the chances that reaching his goal in one pursuit might help him do the same in the other could prove to be a tipping point, the ultimate motivation for the man looking to be the ultimate business golfer.
Of course, Trip Kuehne doesn't know for certain if he will wind up succeeding in either, neither or both. All he can tell you is he's preparing to continue on the road less traveled, confident that at the end he's going to like the view.
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