A widening smile stretches across her face, highlighting the dimple in her left cheek. Her eyes glimmer with excitement. As she sits in a chair in her coach’s office some 2,600 miles away from the question, she shifts a bit, anticipating an answer that’s gonna hit home.
“This is such a good question,” the 22-year-old beams. “I’ve never been asked this one before.”
The query that has come nearly 13 minutes into our video conversation is this: With a family full of athletes, rate the trash-talkers from best to worst.
Rachel Kuehn sits a little taller and leans in. She’s wearing a Wake Forest vest over a black, long-sleeve performance tee. Her dark hair is pulled back, revealing earrings and the fading tones of a summer tan.
“This is going to be so controversial. Okay, best trash-talker. Top is definitely my Mom. And then I think I would go my younger brother, who's a little more on the quiet side. But when he comments, he's very intentional with what he's saying,” she offers, hinting at a stealthy verbal sniper.
“Then probably my Dad and then my older brother. And I don't know where I fall in that pecking order, but from the receiving end, that's how I view it.”
The Kuehn family loves to compete. In this case, they have four high-level golfers plus Dad, who carries a legendary torch in family lore. Or does he? Embellished memories offer him as a standout college baseball player at Wake Forest.
But Rachel, ever direct and offering her own verbal jab, simply says, “He played for like two months and then decided he wasn't going to see the field and figured he was better served studying medicine.”
Sports really is the tie that binds the Kuehn family. All three children used golf as a portal to college, as did Mom. So when the family hits the links, it’s best to bring your sharpest wit and your thickest skin, along with your favorite clubs. Because the trash-talk starts early and can be punishing.
“It's relentless, always good-hearted and always well-timed. I think the beauty of playing something you love with family is that you know when to push their buttons and when to maybe not hit sensitive subjects. But I think in my household, learning to trash-talk is a skill that you develop probably younger than your athletic abilities,” Rachel says with a laugh.
“So I knew how to poke fun at my parents before I even stepped out on the golf course, which I think was really fun. But it's funny how you can flip the switch so quickly because my older brother, for example, caddies for me at all the U.S. amateurs that I've played and we will be on the golf course and he's caddying for me and he's trash-talking my golf game.
“As we're walking up the fairways, we get to the golf shot. And so quickly does it switch to, ‘Okay, come on, focus. We got this.’ My family, they're my biggest supporters. But at the same time, they're also my biggest critics in a very lighthearted way.”
Trash-talking your sister. While carrying her bag. In tournaments.
A sliver of golf’s beauty is the solitary moments one spends on the course. The moment you pull a tee from your pocket, bend over with a ball in tandem and pierce the soft, green skin of the tee box. When you stand and look down the fairway, visualizing your shot. It’s a wide-open space, with trees, ponds and sand traps.
Birds flutter across your field of view and sing from the trees. Light glistens off beads of dew, clinging to the smallest strands of grass. Shadows stretch long and far, black creatures hiding from the beams of golden light.
Nature’s symphony can appear in harmony as you align your driver to the ball, take a deep breath and slowly draw the club back, like slinging an arrow with a bow. Then, with lethal force, the club speeds toward the ball, striking it down the fairway. With a perfect follow-through, your eyes track the racing white dot as it screams through the crisp morning air, sounding like steam released from a pressure cooker, before falling to earth and leaving a small crater. Its journey isn’t complete, though, as momentum and spin propels it further toward the final velvety green, its intended destination.
Rachel lives for these moments. She now sheaths her weapon in her bag, slings it over her shoulder and walks toward the very thing she just divorced from her presence. As her golf spikes step onto the dewy grass, freshly cut blades cling to the sides. Each step offers a mushy firmness beneath her weight.
This is the poetry of golf.
“I love the idea of getting to reset after each golf shot. You get over the golf ball, you have 45 seconds to focus to do your thing and to execute, and then you get six, seven minutes to completely regroup, think about what you've done and then get ready to prepare. Get ready to face the next challenge.
“I think that's something that's really unique to golf. In any other sport, it's very reactive in the sense that a ball is coming at you or you're adjusting to what's around you. Whereas golf, you really do have time to make sure you're doing everything in your control to create the best outcome possible.”
Although Brenda (Corrie) Kuehn was a three-time All-American at Wake Forest and played in two Curtis Cups and nine U.S. Opens, it wasn’t a given that her only daughter would become a golfer.
As Rachel recalls, her parents encouraged the kids to play everything they could. They were hoping to encourage well-rounded athletes who could keep themselves out of trouble and enjoy the life lessons sports offers.
As she grew into a teenager and throughout her high school years, she gravitated to not just golf, but also tennis.
“It was, I think, start of my freshman or sophomore year of high school when my mom sat me down and said, ‘Okay, listen, you have three options in front of you. You can just focus on golf and hopefully play at the college level. You can just focus on tennis and hopefully play at the college level, or you can split your time equally and probably be a very good high school player, but not play in college.’”
Rachel probably didn’t know it, but she was destined for more. Admittedly, she didn’t dazzle in junior golf. She wasn’t pounding the competition. Rather, she was getting a little better each day and enjoying a budding relationship with the sport.
“The amount of tears I shed over this decision is ridiculous. But I realized that there was just something about golf and the relationships that you make through it and the places I've gotten to go and just the life lessons it teaches you. There's something I loved about that and the opportunities that I would have ahead of me.”
With this acceptance of marriage to the sport, Rachel put everything into being the best golfer she could. She continued to play high school tennis, “but everything besides that was completely focused on golf and then sophomore year I committed to Wake and the rest is history.”
The Kuehn family has a hand in both.
Wake Forest is where the legend of Brenda Corrie grew. And it was a big reason why Rachel didn’t see herself becoming a Demon Deacon. She agreed to visit the school out of respect for the coaches and because her parents both attended.
“And even though I knew that I wasn't going to come to Wake, I stepped on campus and fell in love. I loved the campus. I loved the community. I loved the facilities. And I called my parents and told them, ‘I think this is the place.’”
Rachel saw this as a pivotal moment, realizing she could come to Wake Forest and be herself, because she fell in love with it unexpectedly. Yet she didn’t foresee the long shadow her Mom cast and the ensuing dance she would have with self-confidence.
“It was so funny because when I started to have a little bit of a success on the amateur scene, I was very frustrated because I felt like every article that was written, every story that was put out, it always led with Brenda and then kind of went down to, ‘Okay, this is what Rachel did.’
“So I always felt like I couldn't have my own story. My mom was always a part of it, and it kind of came to a head in 2020, and I was like in tears over this whole thing. She was like, ‘Why are you upset?’ And I was trying to explain it to her.
“She never realized, ‘Okay, Rachel couldn't have a story.’ To her, it was always Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. And then Brenda was mentioned. And I think the fact that she hadn't noticed put it in perspective for me, that I was being so incredibly sensitive. I finally realized how cool it is that I have a Mom that's gone through what I've gone through and can relate to my experiences.”
Now, they immediately share every article that mentions the two of them.
One of the running jokes (there seems to be many) in the Kuehn family is that Rachel played the U.S. Open before she was born. Brenda famously played while eight months pregnant in 2001. Her husband Eric was the caddy. Eight days later, Rachel arrived.
But in the years since, Rachel has been writing her own story. She’s a graduate student at Wake (masters in sports media; undergraduate degree in business management), opting to take an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19.
She is a four-time All-American. An NCAA champion in 2022. Two-time ACC Player of the Year. Scholar-Athlete of the Year. At one point, she was No. 4 in the world amateur rankings. Her list of accomplishments is, frankly, insane.
Rachel also played in the Curtis Cup, winning with her American teammates as her Mom had done decades prior. Both Rachel and Brenda produced the winning points for their teams.
Twinsies. You know the press ran with that angle.
While she may not have rocked the junior golf world, her time at Wake Forest has helped her blossom into a budding star who will turn professional in late 2024. There, she will return to the solitude golf offers as an individual sport. It also will be there — on the pro tour — where her story will continue to develop on its own.
“I want to enjoy this last year in college. I really, really do. And I think if I can keep the bigger goal in mind of getting everything ready for (turning pro), I hope that individual wins and all that will follow.
“But I came back to Wake Forest because I love the team aspect so much that the team's success this year is actually way more important to me than any individual success I may have.”