Dogged Kite keeps game on leash

June 01, 1994|By Phil Jackman

POTOMAC -- One of the first things a golf instructor says to you when you take up the game is "Relax." He then should add, "and if you want to see how it's done, watch Tom Kite."

The all-time leading PGA Tour money-winner moved in on Avenel, site of this week's Kemper Open, yesterday and began his preparation. Relaxed to the point of yawning a few times, yes, but at the same time looking like a surgeon going through scrub down prior to an operation.

You would think at age 44 and with 22 years on tour and 19 wins, including the U.S. Open, under his belt, plus nearly $9 million in career earnings, Tom may be at the stage where he would be easing off. Pig's-eye.

That's never been Kite's approach since he came out of the University of Texas and began whacking the ball for more than a scholarship. Follow along.

Hole No. 17: Tom hits the ball into the water on the par-3 to test how far he can gamble going right to get close to the pin. When the tourney proper starts tomorrow, he's not likely to chance the shot again. He putts at least a half-dozen sections at imaginary holes to cover all subsequent pin placements through the final round Sunday.

No. 18: A well-placed drive on the rough finishing hole is followed by three mid-irons attempting different approaches to the putting surface. Then a couple of shots from each trap surrounding the green, and putting, putting, putting.

All the while the golfer is carrying on a steady stream of conversation, witnesses perhaps getting the impression he isn't paying strict attention to the business at hand. When a playing partner, playing the course for the first time, strayed a tee shot right, Tom cautioned, "there's another tree over there you don't see from here."

With many putts, Kite will take his stance over the ball and send it back from whence it came to check and re-check the path of the ball. Not only is pacing for the yardage book conducted by both the player and his caddy, imperceptibly, but almost everything happening during the round seems to be catalogued into the mind's computer.

Kite makes a beeline for the first tee as his playing partners complete their 18 and he finds himself alone there. "I don't know why it is," he says, "but me and my caddy always leave a green at the same time but we never show up at the tee at the same time."

A threesome just starting shows up and Lanny Wadkins says, "Hey, Tom, you taking to hanging around the first tee looking for action these days?" Kite attempts an explanation, but gives up quickly, saying, "Hey, I'm working for him [the caddy]."

He's invited to join the threesome, but begs off, explaining later, "As much as I enjoy playing with Lanny and Billy Ray [Brown], I'd just as soon play by myself. I got to hit some shots; get this game of mine cooking."

No. 1: Five tee shots rocket off the first tee and although all look excellent, Tom knows better. "It can't be that tough to get the ball in the fairway, can it?" he asks a little girl in the gallery.

Suddenly, he's talking about his three kids back home in Austin and he says, "The twins [David and Paul] haven't had much to do in school the last two weeks. Now Christy [a sixth-grader] had a huge project which is due in Thursday. There's no way the kids will get a grade for it because school closes Friday."

You could cover the tee shots with a 10-by-12-foot tarpaulin, but Kite notes that three of them are in the rough (by inches). He belts all the balls to anywhere from seven to 40 feet from the hole. Then he gathers up the balls and hits four- to six-foot putts over and over, the ones you're supposed to get but the ones that often end up costing you a couple of places in the standings, maybe even the tourney.

No. 2: Two drives on the 622-yard, par-5 roller coaster. Listed at 5 feet 8 and 155 pounds in the media guide and, if it's true, Tom is probably the most powerful human to ever carry these dimensions. A couple of layup shots with an iron precedes a series of dead on the stick approaches. Forget the yardage, this is a birdie hole.

The Merrill Lynch Shoot-Out, which saw Duffy Waldorf outchip local boy Fred Funk on the final hole for the $5,000 prize, passes by on a parallel hole, but Tom Kite hardly notices. He's getting his game ready for Avenel, remember, or is it the other way around?

Thing is, Kite's usually right there when it comes to playing this young but constantly improving layout. He won the Kemper in 1987, finished second the next year and last year, too. He has hauled $430,000 out of this tournament alone but, as you can plainly see, he doesn't take anything for granted.

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