A Publication of WTVP

Just a putt away from the pros

by Kirk Wessler |

Morton’s Tommy Kuhl is making his mark on the links, hoping to swing his way into a golf career

Hard to believe, but Tommy Kuhl has flaws in his golf game.

It’s golf, after all.

But still hard to believe. Because Kuhl is one of the top college golfers in the nation, averaging 70.06 strokes per round in his senior season at the University of Illinois. Because even before that, he had a bag full of shots your bag never dreamed of. At Morton High School, he won two individual state championships, shooting a record 63 in the state finals his senior season.

‘For Tommy, good is never good enough’ — Jamie King

Seriously. Sixty-freaking-three at age 17 and you have flaws?

“I had some pretty bad times putting,” Kuhl said.

Poor putting has derailed countless quests to play on the PGA Tour, which is where Kuhl wants to make his living.

“That’s what they all want,” Fighting Illini golf coach Mike Small says.

Going long, coming up short

Small has played in 72 Tour events, with one top-10 finish, and still competes in selected tournaments. He has used the lessons he learned the hard way to teach aspiring stars and build U of I golf into a national power, consistently ranking among the nation’s top 25.

When Kuhl arrived on the Illinois campus as a freshman, Small told him: “You’re one of the best ball-strikers in the country, but that’s not the only thing you need to play out here.”

The message took a while to sink in, even though Kuhl knew his short game needed help. Hard truths aren’t easy to hear, especially when you’ve been a record-setting star despite your flaws.

“Tommy could just overpower a course in high school,” Morton Coach Jamie King said. “On days when he was sharp, he’d show up and it was game over for everyone else. But the one thing that held him back from more of those outrageously low scores was his short game. He’d be on a 365-yard, par-4 hole and bomb his drive 315, but he’d leave himself a 20-foot putt.”

Even the Tour pros make only 15 percent of their 20-footers. So this wasn’t just about putting. The need for improvement required sticking approach shots closer to the pin — and then draining shorter putts.

‘Good is never good enough’

Kuhl says he was overwhelmed at his arrival on the Illinois campus. A lot had to do with the adjustments that most college students face: living away from home for the first time, trying to figure out classes, meeting new people.

Then he got a look at his new teammates and realized he wasn’t the only former high school stud on the team, but just another talented player with big goals. Kuhl suddenly wondered if he was up to playing for a program of Illinois’ stature.

But he’s also driven.

“He loves golf and he’s a monster competitor. That’s an awesome combination,” King said. “And he has a relentless work ethic. Everybody wants to be good, but not everybody works to be good. For Tommy, good is never good enough. He always wants to get better.”

Kuhl put in the work to improve his stroke mechanics and the quality of his chipping, pitching and longer approaches. He learned how to better read greens. But adjustments to his mental approach were arguably more important.

‘A natural talent’

Small has been aware of Kuhl’s passion and skill since the kid first showed up for an Illini golf camp about a dozen years ago. Tommy’s older brother, Pete, had signed up to attend the camp with a cousin. When the cousin got hurt at the last minute, the Kuhl brothers’ parents, Michael and Michele, asked if Tommy could fill the open spot, even though he was below the minimum required age for enrollment. Small consented.

“He was a bag dragger,” Small recalled with a chuckle, recalling Tommy lugging a bag almost as big as him. “But he was a natural talent, with good fundamentals and a good foundation.”

‘It’s in the back of my mind … what happens in a couple months when I’m out there playing for a paycheck’ — Tommy Kuhl

When Small talks about Kuhl’s development into a high-quality college player and Tour prospect, he talks about maturity, slowing down, developing a routine, being a positive person and, perhaps most important, self-confidence.

“The key to success when you’re a pro is you’ve got to believe in yourself,” Small said. “You have to chase your goal with supreme energy and optimism, build that confidence and stay in the present. Don’t look back. Set your goals and make your plan, and then stick with it.

“You can be playing great, but this game can bring you back to reality every day. Don’t deviate. Don’t second-guess. Just keep going.”

Pro golf or bust

Once Kuhl started to apply what Small and the coaching staff were telling him, he began to see positive results. Small calls the improvements in Kuhl’s short game and putting “dramatic.”

By the end of his freshman season, Kuhl had recorded eight sub-par rounds and played his way into the team lineup for the NCAA tournament. After a sophomore season shortened by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kuhl averaged 73.13 strokes per round as a junior, then improved to 71.61 and earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition as a senior in 2021-22.

Now 23 years old with a fifth season of eligibility due to the pandemic-shortened sophomore campaign, Kuhl by late March had shaved his spring-season average to 69.1 and twice won Big Ten Golfer of the Week honors. He’s also a three-time All-America scholar, majoring in recreation, sport and tourism.

Such is his level of confidence that his long-range plans consist only of professional golf, although team goals are Kuhl’s focus at the moment. The Illini entered the heart of the spring season ranked No. 4 in the nation, with two spring tournament championships on their resume. They’re looking for their eighth consecutive Big Ten title, with expectations of adding to an NCAA portfolio that includes five top-5 finishes in the past seven seasons.

With the end of his college career in sight, Kuhl’s pro dream comes more into focus.

“It’s in the back of my mind. I have to start planning for what happens in a couple months when I’m out there playing for a paycheck,” Kuhl said.

Routes to the PGA Tour are many and complex, but most start with time on lower-level pro tours. A consistent finish to his Illini career will give him a boost. Kuhl entered April ranked 19th on the PGA Tour University list. A top-20 finish will earn him a spot on the PGA Tour Canada for the remainder of 2023 and an exemption to the second round of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament. Top 10 would open immediate doors to the Korn Ferry Tour and enhanced PGA Tour qualifying opportunities.

“It’s a crazy process, a long process, with a lot of moving parts,” Kuhl said.

“Being a small-town kid from Morton, I don’t really think I believed a golf career was an option. But I fell in love with the game and the process of getting better, and now I see the hard work paying off. You have to love what you’re doing. It’s a sport. You have to work hard, but you have to have fun with it. If not, how are you going to do it for a living?”

Kirk Wessler

Kirk Wessler

is a former newspaper sports editor who has turned his attention in semi-retirement to a new passion as a singer/songwriter