Kite takes Open, shakes choke tag in major fashion Even-par final round beats Sluman by two

June 22, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF — PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Remove the asterisk from Tom Kite's record. Remove the albatross from his sunburned neck. The leading money-winner in the history of professional golf finally has something to back up his fat bank account.

Facing gale-force winds on the front nine, and the pressure of winning his first major championship down the stretch, Kite erased some bitter disappointments yesterday to win the 92nd U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach.

"It was such a struggle," said Kite. "I don't know whether this is getting over the hump, but I can't remember a much better feeling than this in golf. People kept telling me that winning a major is different, and it is."

As most of those around him collapsed under near-impossible conditions, Kite somehow held together. His even-keel, even-par round of 72 gave Kite a four-round total of 3-under-par 285, two shots ahead of Jeff Sluman (71) and three better than Colin Montgomerie (70) of Scotland.

The victory was the 17th of Kite's 20-year career, and certainly the most significant. It added $275,000 to his earnings of more than $7 million, a silver cup to his trophy case and a boost to his reputation. It validated Kite's resume as one of the game's great players.

"Obviously, it's so important," said Kite, 42, who will receive a 10-year exemption to the Open. "It means so much. You keep saying you're playing great and you're happy with everything. . . . But there's no substitute for winning."

It certainly beats losing. Or worse, blowing leads and chances in the final rounds of majors. Despite his brilliant career, Kite was better-known for falling apart in big tournaments or coming close rather than for winning.

Yesterday's victory wiped away a lot of tearful memories for Kite.

lTC * Of the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill, when Kite lost a three-shot lead with 15 holes to play by putting two balls off the tee into a pond. He triple-bogeyed the hole and finished a distant ninth after a 78.

* Of the 1986 Masters, when Kite missed a short putt on the final hole at Augusta that would have forced a playoff with Jack Nicklaus.

* Of the 1984 Masters, when Kite hit into Rae's Creek at 12 on the final day, fell out of the lead and watched longtime rival Ben Crenshaw win his first major.

"We're talking about dreams that have been around for an awful lot of years," said Kite, who was teary-eyed for different reasons moments after tapping in his final putt. "This is a dream you start having when you're 5 or 6 years old."

Kite, who had grown tired of the questions about why he hadn't won a major, made some interesting admissions last night.

"I let a couple [of majors] slip away," he said. "Some of them were taken away from me by other guys who played well. A couple of them I played poorly. Obviously, you start thinking about them. It is difficult trying to not let negative thoughts pop in your head. I did a great job keeping them out today. But I won't kid you. They do pop in."

Though Kite stumbled a bit by making bogeys at 16 and 17, cutting a four-shot lead in half, those are not what anyone will remember from yesterday. Today, and for years to come, they will talk only of the shots Kite made at Pebble Beach.

There was the 30-footer for birdie from the fringe behind the sixth green. The hard-to-believe 60-foot chip-in from heavy rough behind the seventh green for birdie. The 25-footer for birdie at No. 14. Even the bogey Kite made from a steep decline and heavy rough below the ninth green.

"That was a big bogey," he said. "Some bogeys are better than others, and that was great."

There were plenty of bogeys and double bogeys yesterday at Pebble Beach, where the 30-mph winds whipped off the Pacific and dried out the already rock-hard greens. The average score was 77.26, the highest since the 1982 Open here.

Third-round leader Gil Morgan, who had led the tournament since his birdie at 18 in Thursday's opening round, fell off the board early and disintegrated with a final-round 81. Mark Brooks, who tied briefly for the lead after a birdie at No. 2, four-putted the third green for double bogey and never recovered, finishing with an 84.

"It was brutal out there today. It was just a matter of survival," said Sluman, a former PGA champion.

Kite survived. With Montgomerie sitting in the clubhouse for hours at even-par after a 2-under 70, with Sluman holing a birdie the 18th hole to go to 1-under, it was left up to Kite. He still had several tough holes to play.

He seemingly put the tournament away after he popped a wedge over a bunker from the rough at 14 within three feet and made birdie to go 5-under. He appeared to get out of trouble at 15, when he found the rough again, but chipped up and made par.

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