Kite removes major obstacle from life's path

June 22, 1992|By Joe Juliano | Joe Juliano,Knight-Ridder

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The label bugged Tom Kite wherever he went, stuck to the back of his golf sweater like some "Hit me" sign.

"Best Golfer Never to Win a Major," it read. That he was the PGA Tour's career leading money earner didn't matter, or even that he had won 16 events and had made a great life for his family in Austin, Texas.

After so many close calls in major championships, Kite, 42, came up with the ultimate triumph yesterday, winning the U.S. Open on a day when the howling winds at Pebble Beach Golf Links turned the greens to the hardness of freeways and the games of some of the world's greatest golfers to mush.

Despite hitting only nine greens, Kite kept his nerves and his game in check to card a par-72 -- one of only five par-or-better rounds shot yesterday -- to capture his first major by two strokes with a final score of 3-under-par 285.

While that was the highest 72-hole score for an Open champion since 1978, that didn't make a bit of difference to Kite. He had been this way before, close enough to a major to be rehearsing his victory speech, only to meet with bitter disappointment.

Kite tied for second in the 1978 British Open and had the same standing in both the 1983 and the 1986 Masters. But the real disaster came in the 1989 Open, when he stood on the fifth tee of the final round with a three-shot lead, only to lose that and collapse to five shots behind eventual champion Curtis Strange at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.

"I still feel like that was my tournament to win or lose and I lost it," Kite said yesterday, the gleaming silver Open trophy nearby. "Today, this was my tournament to win or lose and I won it. Some of the other disappointments were the result of somebody else's good play. That doesn't bother me nearly as much as disappointing myself when I don't perform.

"I really played some of the finest golf I've ever played at Oak Hill. But I had just one or two errant swings, and maybe I didn't handle the situation mentally as well as I should have."

And after those crushing defeats, the questions would come: How do you feel? Do you think you're destined never to win a major? When asked Saturday what he would like best about winning a major, Kite tersely replied, "Not having to answer these questions."

Yesterday, he was in a much better mood to explain.

"To be honest, that question bugged the daylights out of me," he said. "I really felt good about Tom Kite and his career and his family and everything that I have going for me. But that was the thing that most people wanted to talk about. It bugged me.

"It was kind of like the other things didn't matter. It was like only four tournaments counted. Yes, majors are important, but some people play a whole career winning major championships, or multiple major championships, and I wouldn't trade my career with them for anything."

After three days of cloudy but generally benign conditions on the Monterey Peninsula, the skies cleared and the sun came out for the most gorgeous weather of the week. But the wind also picked up, making every shot an adventure.

Twenty of the 66 players in the field had scores of 80 or higher. Of the 22 players who started the day with 54-hole scores of par or better, 15 shot in the 80s, topped by Scott Simpson with a horrific 88. Gil Morgan, who began the day with a one-shot lead, struggled to an 81. Ian Woosnam and Mark Brooks, who started the day in a second-place tie with Kite, had 79 and 84, respectively.

But Kite had it going all day, carding five birdies. He made the turn at par for the round, although he had hit only two greens in regulation, but was helped by a 20-yard pitch that he holed for birdie at the tricky, par-3 seventh.

When he got to the 10th tee, Kite, the only player under par for the tournament at that point, had a three-shot lead over Jeff Sluman and Colin Montgomerie, a Scotsman who had completed the tournament at par 288 after a 70. Sluman birdied the 18th for a 71 to move ahead of Montgomerie into second place at 287.

So this indeed was Kite's tournament to lose. But his game -- and his mental state -- were strong.

"There was a lot of emotion," he said. "It was very difficult keeping all the negative thoughts from popping into my head. I was proud of the job I did in keeping them away. I won't kid you, they popped in from time to time. Fortunately, my caddie and I stayed in the present tense. It was so easy to race ahead to think about what might happen or to think about what happened a few years ago."

Kite picked up key birdies on the par-3 12th, with a 35-foot putt, and at the difficult, par-5 14th, where he stuck a wedge to two feet and made the putt. Bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes produced some tension, but he made "probably the best swing I made all day" with his tee shot on the dangerous par-5 18th.

He hit the green with his third shot, 15 feet away, two-putted for par and thrust his fists skyward, the ghosts and labels magically eradicated.

"It was gut-check time out there," he said. "From tee to green, it wasn't the best tournament I've ever had, not even close. But as far as hanging in there and doing the things required on a very difficult golf course, it is probably the best."

And, as far as his goals for the years to come, Kite was more than happy to add the majors to the list.

"There are three others that would make a nice matched set to this trophy," he said.

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