Blood-spinning treatments for back pain help Hank Kuehne return to Tour
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The last time Hank Kuehne finished in the top 10 on the PGA Tour was at the 2005 International in Castle Pines, Colo., where he finished fourth.
Shortly after that, Kuehne's back pain began to prevent any such heroics, and the 1998 U.S. Amateur champion lost his game. He missed the cut in seven of nine starts in '06, and in all three of his Tour starts in '07. He began seeing back doctors in hopes of reviving his once-promising career, but even though he saw 13 specialists, nothing helped. A year went by, and then two, and Kuehne made news only in his choice of girlfriends, tennis star Venus Williams (they've since split). His Tour career was kaput.
"I gave up," Kuehne said from the Honda Classic at PGA National, where he will make his first PGA Tour start since 2007. "I was done."
Fate intervened to bring him back. Kuehne's dad, Ernie, was seeking a remedy for his own aches and pains in 2008 and came upon a cutting-edge doctor in Dusseldorf, Germany, named Peter Wehling. Wehling had pioneered a blood-spinning procedure to relieve inflammation called Orthokine therapy, and Ernie was so impressed that he told Hank. The son was skeptical but went to Germany in March of last year. (The procedure is similar to platelet-rich plasma therapy, which Dr. Anthony Galea used to treat Tiger Woods, among other prominent athletes.)
"I didn't want to go to Germany," said Kuehne, 36, who has been getting in as many holes as daylight allows at the nearby Medalist Club. "I thought, 'What is this quack going to tell me that all the others haven't?'"
Wehling's message: Kuehne's problems were not the ones doctors were trying to treat in the U.S.
"It's basically pretty simple," Ernie Kuehne said. "These guys all have structural problems out here on Tour. But they also have, a lot of them, arthritis. The doctors here all want to operate. There's a lot of misdiagnosis. Dr. Wehling said, 'These structural problems are not keeping your son from playing golf. Your son has arthritis.'"
According to Ernie, the blood-spinning procedure isolates healing proteins, which are then reinjected into the patient. It has not yet become available in the U.S. but has been given the green light by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez were both treated by Wehling. With nothing to lose, Kuehne flew to Dusseldorf.
"We got there on a Sunday," he said. "Monday morning you're in the doctor. They do the blood draw in the morning. You come back, and I took eight injections a day for five straight days and then came home. When I went back in January, I did the same thing. Actually, I took nine in January, a day, for five straight days. And then come home. For somebody that hates needles, it's obviously not fun, but I'd much rather do that than -- if I had to do it every day, I'd do it, let's put it that way."
Back home in Palm Beach Gardens, Kuehne did some work in the gym and hit 30 balls a day for a week. Then he hit 60 balls a day, and then 90. He could tell something was different.
"It's been like a life‑changing experience," he said. "I mean, my golf game has been really good. I had one little setback I guess just over the holidays, but went back over and saw the doc and we got everything taken care of. I feel healthy as I've ever felt, and I'm just extremely excited and grateful to be able to play again."
Playing this season on a major medical extension, Kuehne will have 18 starts to earn $636,221. Much has changed. His pal Tiger Woods is ranked 21st in the world and has fallen even further in popularity. If there's a favorite at the Honda, it's not Woods but Rory McIlroy, 22, or Lee Westwood. The International, where Kuehne got his last top-10 finish, hasn't been a Tour stop since 2006.
"There's still a bunch of old guys out here," said Kuehne, who kept in touch with a handful of players, including Woods, with whom he plays practice rounds at Medalist. "I've seen them. A bunch of the guys I know. I've also seen some guys that I'm not sure were driving a car the last time I was out here."
(Credit: David Walberg/SI)