At 35-under, 'new' Kite only conserves strokes

February 15, 1993|By Bob Verdi | Bob Verdi,Chicago Tribune

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Here in a bastion for cosmetic surgery, Tom Kite's profile changed this week, too. This smallish Texan of age 43, with bad eyes from birth and gnarled fingers from all those hours on the practice range, shot his reputation as golf's consummate grinder full of holes.

He didn't waste any swings, either. Not in the annals of this mind-altering sport has a player ever taken such indecent liberties with par. Kite won the 34th Bob Hope Classic in 35-under-par. That's a record, and that's on his ball. It wasn't a team score from a scramble where you buy Mulligans at the door for $5, proceeds to charity. No windmills, either, or free games and stuffed animals if the siren sounds. A Kite high, from start to finish.

"Rush Limbaugh isn't normally much more conservative than I am," he said. "I don't think this will ruin my label as a guy who tries to play smart and not take bad-percentage shots out there. But I'm playing better than I ever have, and I'm not afraid to shoot a low score. If I'm looking at a 68, rather than be content with that, I try for something better. You almost have to now, with all the talent out here."

Kite played five rounds during the Hope, and he hasn't slumped to 68 yet. He began with a couple of 67s at Bermuda Dunes and Tamarisk. Nothing to shout about. Then on Friday he posted a 64 at Indian Wells. Saturday at PGA West, he filed a 65 but wasn't happy because he botched a few putts. He was angry enough yesterday to shave that to 62, a course record for the Arnold Palmer course, and a 90-hole aggregate of 325.

A couple of years ago, 31-under was achieved during five rounds at the Las Vegas Invitational. There are parallels between the Strip and Palm Springs. They're spas, resorts, getaways. The courses are forgiving, and if you catch the desert in a peaceful mood, it's akin to playing beneath a climate-controlled dome. Optimum scoring conditions, in other words, though only Kite fully capitalized here. If it was so easy for everybody, then Scott Simpson wouldn't have landed in third place, 10 whacks back.

"I guess that's how a guy makes $8 million," said Rick Fehr, who was runner-up at 29-under but never really a threat.

His reference was to Kite's approximate career earnings, about a tenth of which he has bagged in this state within the last year. His premier prize, of course, was the U.S. Open up the coast at Pebble Beach, where Kite handled ferocious winds and rocklike greens for a closing 72. Kite has been known to play well on difficult tracks. Chewing up and spitting out some of the lesser venues was another matter. Discretion overcame valor, and Tom Kite did his Rush Limbaugh impersonation.

But Kite has gained confidence after a brief lapse into paralysis through analysis a couple of seasons ago. He had a headache in his swing, and he took the whole bottle of aspirin. Now he has a major title, all the cash he'll ever need and more than enough pop. He always was sneaky long.

Kite, who went out in 33, came home with four straight birdies toward a 29. He collected 37 birds in 90 holes, plus two eagles to dwarf six bogeys. He reached 77 of 90 greens in regulation, and yesterday he required only 22 putts. He seemed to pour just about everything he tapped into the cup, regardless of distance or direction. He confessed to being in one of those "zones." If he erred, it was in saving his historic performance for an afternoon when the Hope was abbreviated on TV by a triple-overtime NBA contest.

"My wife, Christy, is back home in Austin [Texas]," Kite said. "She just called to ask me all about it."

How amazing is 35-under-par? The four major champions of 1992 -- Fred Couples at the Masters, Kite at the U.S. Open, Nick Faldo at the British Open and Nick Price at the PGA -- played 16 rounds in a total of 34-under.

Kite likened his week's frolic to that of the Dallas Cowboys at Super Bowl XXVII, although the greens in Buffalo probably aren't holding too well right about now. You can mock the golf here in February, but at least they've got it.

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