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Tale Of A High-Flyin' Kite

Will Tom Kite, top money winner in golf last year, finally take home a major? Would we string you along?

Tom Kite dives into no lakes. He doesn't hit booming tee shots, utter memorable wisecracks or use couturier golf balls. He doesn't dominate major championships, or win very many week-to-week tournaments, either. What he does do as well as anybody on the PGA Tour is show up on leaderboards. Tom Kite is terrific on leaderboards.

Last year Kite's virtuosity on the leaderboards made him the tour leader with $375,699 in winnings. He won the Vardon Trophy with a stroke average of 69.80 per round; only Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino have recorded lower figures. He started 26 tournaments and made the cut 26 times; through the first dozen tournaments of this year, his no-cut string had grown to 44, counting nine in 1980. In 1981 he was in the top 10 21 times and eighth or better in a record 10 straight events and 17 of his last 18. Another name for all those statistics is consistency.

Kite, who is 32, is consistent about something else, too: not winning a whole lot. In 10 seasons of campaigning he has won at Bay Hill this year, at Inverrary last year, at the B.C. Open in 1978 and at the Bicentennial in 1976. And that's all, folks.

But because Kite's game has been consistently improving, there is a body of opinion among his fellow pros that he's about due to shake at least a part of his image by winning a major—next week's Masters, for instance. In fact, the biggest surprise would be if Kite didn't turn out to be a contender in Augusta.

The proof, again, is in the consistency of his numbers. Kite has finished among the top 10 in six of the past seven Masters in which he has competed as a touring professional. He has been among the top six in five of those years. He has tied for third place once and wound up fifth three different times. In order, he tied for 10th (1975), tied for fifth (1976), tied for third (1977), tied for 18th (1978), was fifth alone (1979), tied for sixth (1980) and tied for fifth (1981).

Not long ago Kite was saying, "It's a peculiar thing. Augusta isn't really the kind of course I should play well. I just get pumped up, I guess."

Not the kind of course Kite should play well? Kite shouldn't play as well as 100 other pros on any of the courses on the tour, but he does. He shouldn't have won more than $1 million in prize money since 1973, his rookie year, but he has. He shouldn't be more successful at the game than Ben Crenshaw, but he is. And he shouldn't keep frequenting the leader-boards, but he no doubt will.

There are two big reasons why he will. One is that Kite will continue to outwork almost everyone in the game, which is what he has always done. "I'd say Tom Watson and I have worked harder than anybody," he says. The other reason is that Kite wants to succeed very badly. In sport, that old intangible called want-to has been around as long as natural ability, and in the game of life, as well as in the game of golf, the want-to's have whipped up on the naturals more times than not.

This is not to imply that Kite is the only player on the tour who carries desire and tenacity in his golf bag, although he is one of the few players who carry three wedges. While he doesn't do any one thing spectacularly well—drive, hit irons, scramble or putt—he does everything he has to do plenty well enough.

"If I have a strength," Kite says, "I suppose it has to be that I don't have any big hole in my game. That's what I've been working toward, at least."

Kite is, in fact, arguably the tour's best all-around player. He finished among the top seven golfers in six of the PGA Tour's nine statistical categories for 1981: driving accuracy (7), saves from sand traps (6), greens hit in regulation (5), par breakers (5), birdies (2) and scoring (1). "He has no glaring weakness," says fellow pro Lanny Wadkins. "Tom Watson can hit the ball off the world—Livingston couldn't find some of his drives. Gary Player sometimes hooks badly off the tee. Johnny Miller has never been a great chipper. Jack Nicklaus had trouble with his wedge and sand shots until the last couple of years. But Kite has no problems, so he's always going to score well. If one part of his game is down, he'll make up with another."

Kite started working hard on his golf game in Austin, Texas, when he was about 13 years old and found out there was an 11-year-old in town who could beat him. The younger kid was Crenshaw. In a sense, Kite has been competing against Crenshaw, and Crenshaw's charisma, ever since.

"Ben was glamorous-looking and a long hitter, with a picture swing, the kind of game everybody likes," Kite says. "I was short off the tee and fat, grinding away, down the middle, on the green, one or two putts. The other thing was, when you're the older of two kids, you're supposed to win. Losing to Ben was embarrassing in that respect for a while."

But Kite didn't decide to become a touring pro just because of Crenshaw. Golf had been the major theme in his life since he was a 6-year-old in Dallas and banging away at the ball with a set of cut-down clubs. His father, who worked for the IRS, built a putting green in the backyard and informed Tom that the greens were where the money and the glory were to be found. Getting to the green as quickly as everyone else would be Kite's big problem, and that's where his biggest efforts have gone.

As an amateur, he found he could get by with a flat swing and a dinky hook off the tee. After his sophomore year at the University of Texas he was runner-up by a stroke to Wadkins in the U.S. Amateur. In 1971 he made the Walker Cup team. In 1972 he tied with Crenshaw for the individual title in the NCAA, perhaps the toughest of all amateur tournaments to win. Then he turned pro and got through the tour qualifying school on his first try, no small achievement for a guy with a dinky hook. Not to mention tiny hands and the fact that he has abysmal vision ("about 20-480"). Kite's father might well have touted him off" the tour had not Jay and Lionel Hebert urged him to give Tom a chance. "They said that if I talked him out of golf, he'd always hold me responsible," says Kite Sr.

Here is how the decision has paid off: He was Rookie of the Year in 1973 and made the top 60 exempt list (he was 56th). The following year he leaped to 26th on the money list. Last year he made it all the way to the top. Bill Rogers banked more on a global scale, but Kite's $375,699 was unique in another way. He became the first player since 1955 to lead in earnings over a year while winning only one tournament. All in all, Kite has a record for consistency that hasn't been approached since Dow Finsterwald was picking up all those second-place checks behind Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler and Billy Casper. "If people want to compare me with Finsterwald, I'll take it," Kite says. "That's not bad company."

Like Finsterwald, Kite has proved remarkably easy to overlook. He is 5'8½" and 155 pounds, and he stays fairly well hidden beneath his Amana visor and behind his tinted glasses. And even when the visor comes off, it's difficult to believe you're looking at a touring pro. With his wavy blond hair, pink face and polite smile, you get the feeling that he would have more credibility as a Kappa Sig pledge captain, or perhaps the youngest loan officer at your bank.

Kite's dedication to playing better golf often finds him laboring into the evenings. A lot of pros have been known to practice putting on the old Marriott carpet, but Kite has a machine to help him, a little black box. One can imagine Kite, his wife, Christy, and their 6-month-old daughter, Stephanie, all staring at this electronic wonder instead of watching Hill Street Blues. Kite's little black box is a Teacher Alignment Computer, a TAC. It shoots a ray of light at a mirror attached to Kite's putter. The ray bounces back to the machine and sets off a green, yellow or red light. If the green flashes, the putt is within one degree of being perfectly square to the target. Less so if yellow. Terrible if red.

Before getting to the little black box in the evening, however, Kite has generally used up the last glimmer of daylight to hit practice balls or to chip and putt. "It's a habit," he says. "I can't leave a golf course without hitting some balls, no matter how well I've scored that day." He always warms down after a round with the same routine, a variation on the way he warms up for one. Putting first, then wedge shots, irons and woods—and wedges and putts again.

Here again Kite's penchant for consistency shows through. "Tom does everything the same way," says Mark Hayes, a fellow pro and friend. "He swings the same, keys on the same things, walks at the same speed."

"The basis of his game is to be repetitive—to do the same things on Sunday that he did on Thursday," says Kite's caddie, Mike Carrick. "When play is slow in a tournament, he walks extra slow so he won't have to stand around. We find if you walk fast you'll swing fast. The tendency is to get pumping and be too fast in everything you do. There's a fine line—you want to keep the momentum going, but you don't want to get too far ahead of yourself."

Kite decided to put three wedges in his bag after he and Christy carefully studied his shotmaking over a six-month period. Christy, a former junior high school math teacher and Arizona State varsity golfer, kept stats of every tournament shot he played and where it was played from, and Tom plotted them on a chart. This led them to the conclusion that Tom needed a special club for 60-yard third shots into par-5 holes that he couldn't ever reach in two blows like the Nicklauses and Watsons—and Crenshaws. Thus, he carries a regular sand club, a regular pitching wedge, and a third sand wedge for fairway pitch shots. While he may have left out the one-iron and two-iron, he's not exactly without long irons. His three-iron is bent to a two-iron loft, and his four-iron is bent to a 3½-iron, and there is a joke among the other players on the tour that his five-iron is bent to a 2¾-iron.

This rejiggering of his equipment to suit his own particular need was accomplished by Kite himself in the club-repair shop he and his father built in the basement of Kite's home in Austin. Other golfers may list "hunting and fishing" as their interests in the tour guide; Kite says "club repair."

If 3½-irons sounds like analytical overkill, it's nothing compared to how Kite prepared himself to go out there with the big guys in the first place. Soon after turning pro, he went to Bob Toski, one of the game's better teachers, and told Toski he wanted a new golf game. He wanted to get rid of the dinky hook, he wanted to learn how to get the ball "up," he wanted a new grip—the works.

"He wanted everything changed," Toski remembers. "His posture, his playing position—a complete overhaul. I told him there weren't any shortcuts, and he said he didn't want to take any shortcuts. I think all the work he put in is why he's so consistent today."

"Christy didn't know me then," Kite says. "She didn't know how I used to look or swing when I was an amateur. One night I was showing a film at home and I said this player on the screen was runner-up to Wadkins in the National Amateur, and he's on the tour now. Who is it?"

Christy didn't know. It was, of course, Tom Kite.

And it was—hold the "of course"—Kite who won last month's Bay Hill tournament, when he got into a playoff with Nicklaus and a South African named Denis Watson in typical Kite fashion, by hitting a beautiful bunker shot on the 72nd hole to save a par. He then took the playoff by chipping in for a birdie on the first sudden-death hole. But if you say Kite was lucky at Bay Hill, you would also have to admit he was terribly unlucky earlier at both Palm Springs and Inverrary. He was a sure winner at Palm Springs until Ed Fiori holed a 35-foot putt in the playoff to beat him. Then at Inverrary he was the only player staying out of trouble while George Burns and Hale Irwin were getting into it, and another playoff involving Kite seemed a certainty. That was before Irwin hit a seeing-eye shot out of the trees and up onto the 18th green and near enough to the pin to put in a winning birdie.

"I don't think it's exaggerating to say I should have won twice this year, and I could have won three times already," Kite says. "It happens to other players. I hope it's going to start happening to me."

Last year's Memphis Classic may have been the biggest heartbreaker of all. For all four rounds Kite played the finest tee-to-green golf of his life. But Jerry Pate got to dive in the lake.

Kite and Pate were paired in the last round, and when they got to the 71st hole Pate held a one-shot lead. But it seemed certain that Kite would pull even because Pate faced a 30-foot putt to save par and hold his lead. Pate sank the putt, and what that meant was that Kite would have to try to catch up on the last hole, a par-5 where he would be at a horrible disadvantage because of his length off the tee.

Kite busted a driver and a three-wood but the closest he could come to reaching the green was a bunker 40 yards out. Pate hit a driver and laid up short of the green with a five-iron. Both Kite and Pate were aware of the same thing: A 40-yard bunker shot is the toughest shot in golf. And Kite had to get up and down from that bunker to have any hope of forcing a playoff.

As far as Pate was concerned, the tournament was over, so as the two of them walked up the 18th fairway, Pate, forever babbling, said, "You know, Tom, I could have reached the green easy, I'm so fired up. But I was afraid I'd hit a four-wood over the TV tower." Replied Tom: "Jerry, you play your game and I'll play mine."

Never one to miss an opening for a wisecrack, Pate said, "Well get on over in that bunker and play your game then."

Looking back on the incident, Pate said, "I thought I'd put him away with my mouth, but that son of a gun hit the greatest bunker shot I ever saw. He put it within 10 feet of the cup and then he damn near made the putt."

Damn near. A good title for the story of Kite's career so far.

Because he has flirted so much with winning without winning, Kite's reputation has suffered. He is perceived as too cautious a player, a percentage golfer, a man who cares only for survival. This, of course, isn't true.

"It kills me to lose;" Kite says. "It kills all of us out here. Some guys may think because I've been close so often I'm willing to settle for that. I'm not. I haven't yet played the golf I'm capable of. People who think I've gotten all I can out of my ability don't really know me."

Another thing bothers Kite. There are players who say he doesn't take chances, that he doesn't always go for it, as Crenshaw does.

"It's hard to take a chance when you can't reach the green in the first place," Kite says mournfully.

But he has no trouble reaching the leaderboards. And even Ben Crenshaw might trade a little charisma for that these days.


Kite feeds his passion for club repair in workshops like this at the Phoenix Open.


Stephanie joined the tour at Hilton Head.


At the Crosby, Kite had a presidential overseer.


1. TOM WATSON—Two-time winner, best putter in the game. Would win just to get back at the media he loves to hate.

2. JERRY PATE—Most talented player around, could win any week. But he'll have to dive into a bowl of red-eye gravy.

3. SEVE BALLESTEROS—Nearest to Pate in all-around ability. Tee shots don't often get lost at Augusta and Seve's won here before.

4. RAY FLOYD—They call him "Tempo Raymondo," Old Mr. Steady. He shares the 72-hole record with Nicklaus.

5. LANNY WADKINS—When he's hot, he's the hottest, and he knows how to win majors.

6. TOM KITE—If getting up and down is the key, Kite's your man.

7. CRAIG STADLER—The wild bull of the fairways hasn't won a major, but he will. Having a great year.

8. JOHNNY MILLER—If the fairways offer perfect lies, watch out for this deadly iron player. He's been close before.

9. BILL ROGERS—Best shotmaker in the game, but length could be a problem for him.

10. JACK NICKLAUS—Over the hill but not so far away. He's only won this one five times.