PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- In other years, Tom Kite might have prepared differently for the U.S. Open. He might have gone to the previous PGA Tour stop to work on his game, or grinded it out on the practice tee back home in Texas. And, no doubt, he would have thought quite a bit about the Open.
But this year, Kite spent the week in Baltimore with his family, playing a little golf with old friend Dennis Satyshur, the head pro at Caves Valley in Owings Mills. He took in a ballgame at Camden Yards. He took his 10-year-old daughter, Stephanie, an aspiring gymnast, to the Olympic trials at the Baltimore Arena.
"He didn't put any pressure on himself," said his wife, Christy.
Said Kite: "It was great. I've never been one to take a week off like that and get away from the game. But maybe I'll do it again."
Maybe he will, now that Kite won the 92nd Open on Sunday at Pebble Beach. Maybe he will, now that Kite won the first major championship of his previously illustrious, but somewhat unfulfilled, 20-year career. Maybe he will, now that he won't be called the best player never to have won a major, a man who had earned more money than any other player in PGA Tour history and less respect than he probably deserved.
Kite had been an afterthought for most of this year's Open. Until he came into the press room Saturday night, one shot off the lead and one of the chief beneficiaries of third-round leader Gil Morgan's monumental blowup, no one reminded Kite of his past failures and near-misses. Of the 1989 Open at Oak Hill. Of the Masters in 1984 and 1986. Of a career when second-place checks seemed to have his name on them.
"We were talking about it Saturday night, and he said, 'I'm just going out and enjoy the day,' " Christy Kite recalled, standing in the press room as her husband was still sitting on the podium."He was probably more relaxed today than he was in 1989. I think last week was a big help. Nobody cared about the Open."
Said Satyshur, who has known Kite since they went through tour qualifying school together in 1972: "I was talking to [sports psychologist] Bob Rotella, who's worked with Tom. He felt it [the week off] couldn't have been better. Nobody was talking to him about Pebble Beach, and the next thing he knew, he was out there getting ready."
Satyshur said he noticed something different about Kite's attitude, a quiet confidence that Satyshur had noticed when he spent a week with him in Hilton Head, S.C., during Kite's victory at the 1989 Nestle Championship.
"I mentioned that to him," said Satyshur. "He didn't really say anything, but I knew he felt good about his game. We had worked on one thing with his swing -- his club face was coming inside a little too quickly -- but we taped it, and once he saw it, he made the adjustments. It was just a very relaxed atmosphere."
On Sunday, as those who began the round in contention crumbled around him, Kite seemed to stay calm and focused. But a man who has spent a career masking his emotions was churning inside, trying to fight off the memories of the 1989 Open in particular.
It was there, at Oak Hill outside Rochester, N.Y., that Kite had thrown away a three-shot lead with 15 holes to play by putting two balls in the water for a triple-bogey at No. 5. It was there that the questions about Kite's inability to win a major intensified, and began to follow him to nearly every tournament.
"I still feel like that was my tournament to win or lose, and I lost it," he said Sunday night. "Today, this was my tournament to win or lose, and I won it. I take pride in the fact that I feel like I really perform well when it counts. I was playing really some of the finest golf that I ever played at Oak Hill. And because of one or two errant swings, and maybe not handling some situations mentally as well as I should, I let that tournament get away."
As for the question about not winning a major, Kite said, "It bugged the living daylights out of me. I really felt good about Tom Kite and his career, and the family and everything I have going for me. I'm so fortunate. I guess the fact that it was the only thing most people wanted to talk about. It bugged me."
Said his father, Tom: "He was a little sensitive about it. It wasn't something he talked about or something I brought up. But he'd had such a good career before. He always felt like he would win a major. He felt ultimately it would be the Masters. It took awhile to win his first tournament, and I guess it got to be the same way in the majors."
Satyshur can remember picking up his friend at Baltimore-Washington International Airport the day after the debacle at Oak Hill. Kite had committed to play in a Skins Game at Pine Ridge. Most players in his situation might have backed out, but Kite went through with it. When Kite got into Satyshur's car, he was obviously crestfallen.