Corning Classic
Corning Classic
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Kuehne earns first victory

Kelli Kuehne attacked the final round of the Corning Classic with the poise of a veteran and the enthusiasm of a rookie.

Both paid off when she got her first LPGA Tour victory and pocketed the $112,500 winner's purse today.

Kuehne, at 22 the youngest winner in the 21-year history of the tournament, shot a 2-under-par 70 for a one-stroke victory over Rosie Jones, who had a closing 72.

A flawless front nine including an eagle on the par-5 No. 5 and a rocky back nine left Kuehne at 10-under with a four-day total of 278. Joan Pitcock and Cindy McCurdy, with 67s, and defending champion Tammie Green, with a 68, were at 281.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," Kuehne said. "It probably won't until I'm on the plane tonight with the other players headed for the U.S. Women's Open."

Kuehne was undaunted by a field that included four 1999 tournament winners and nine past Corning Classic champions.

She tamed many of the bumpy greens and narrow fairways of the 6,062-yard, Corning Country Club course.

"People kept telling me I'm young and I should be patient,'' Kuehne said. "But I don't want to be patient. I want it now.''

Green noticed.

"Kelli's a good competitor, and she's going to be great for the tour," Green said. "We need more young Nancy Lopezes.''

Lopez, who closed with a 72 to stand at 284, said: "Kelli's a strong player. That's a good score for this course."

Kuehne teed off trailing two-time former champion Jones by one stroke and went out in 31 to move ahead by five strokes at 13-under.

A 12-foot birdie putt on No. 14 gave Kuehne a six-stroke lead at 14-under and momentarily stopped Jones.

"I thought nothing will touch this girl now," Jones said. "But then she started falling in on herself, and I didn't have enough left to put the pressure on her."

Jones played steadily on the back nine as Kuehne made three bogeys and a double bogey. Jones narrowly missed a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 17 that would have left her a stroke down.

Kuehne veered off the fairway on No. 18. But she two-putted to salvage a bogey.

"I wasn't nervous until my first putt at 18," she said.

Kuehne had known pressure. She won the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1995 and 1996, and turned professional in November of 1996.

She earned $39,831 in 24 tournaments last year, and was so nervous "my knees knocked.'' She went into the Corning this year having played in 10 tournaments with earnings of $47,507.

Improvement came after Kuehne decided she was taking golf too seriously. She cut down on her practice time and made more time for other things including her fiance, former University of Texas offensive tackle Jay Humphrey, a fourth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings.

"If I lived and died by my game the way I did last year, I wouldn't be here today," Kuehne said.

Jones, who crossed the $3 million mark in career earnings with her 1997 Corning victory, competed in 26 tournaments and earned $395,241 last year. She posted her ninth LPGA win at last May's Wegman's Rochester International, and had eight top-10 finishes last year.

"I feel a lot better about my game than when I got here last week," she said.

Betsy King shot a 66 to finish at 5-under. King struggled with her putter in posting a 77 in the third round after a pair of 70s.

"I hit the ball well and putted better today,'' she said.

The Corning Classic had a record purse of $750,000 this year. Green earned $105,000 for last year's win, the first time first prize in the tournament has topped the $100,000 mark.