The first PGA tour event of 1991, if you believe Christy Kite, was actually won one day last July on a westbound jet somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. That's when her husband, Tom—a low-flying Kite after some ugly putting had just caused him to miss the cut in the British Open at St. Andrews—turned to her in his seat and said, "It's kind of ridiculous, isn't it?"
On Sunday afternoon, Christy served up this innocuous comment as a turning point in her husband's lately desperate quest to regain his putting stroke. Minutes earlier the 41-year-old pro from Austin, Texas, had tapped in for par on the 72nd hole to win the Infiniti Tournament of Champions by one stroke over Lanny Wadkins. Kite was beaming like a new daddy after having shot a 16-under-par 272 over the La Costa Country Club course in Carlsbad, Calif.
"The putter is back!" he exulted.
Such exuberance from the Tour's all-time leading money-winner ($6,402,893) was uncharacteristic but understandable. Lost putting strokes are not like lost puppies; they don't respond to prayers, and they often escape the most diligent neighborhood search.
And Kite's putting definitely ran off and hid in 1990—he ranked 170th on the Tour, with an average of 30.06 putts per round. In 1989, his Player of the Year season, Kite ranked 23rd with an average of 28.84 putts per round.
That explains why Kite, despite what he calls the best ball-striking of his career last year, came up more than $700,000 shy of his '89 total to drop from first to 15th place on the annual money list. As he put it Sunday, "It's a heck of a lot harder to stay on top than to get there."
So what happened on that flight across the Atlantic? According to Christy, Tom simply decided to ignore the snickering from other pros, the media and fans that greeted his off-again, on-again experiments with a cross-handed putting style.
"He putted well cross-handed, but he caught so much grief for it," she said. "Putting cross-handed is a last-ditch thing. You putt cross-handed before you die."
At La Costa, Kite putted cross-handed...and lived. He did the same thing last August, when he got the lower hand on John Cook and won the St. Jude Classic in a playoff. That encouraging victor qualified him for the winners-only Tournament of Champions field for the 11th time.
"All I needed to do was redirect some of my attention onto the short game," Kite said Saturday after shooting a third-round 68, good for a two-stroke lead over Wadkins and Fred Couples. "That's really what my game was built around and what enabled me to play so consistently for so long."
Bothered by tendinitis in his left elbow, Kite had practiced sparingly and had played no competitive golf since the Nabisco Championships at the Champions Golf Club in Houston in October. Wadkins, on the other hand, spent the holidays racing around Dallas's Preston Trail Golf Club in a golf cart. "We play a fivesome or a six-some," said Wadkins, one of the fastest players on the Tour. "We all have carts, and we don't observe honors."
"Well, there's not much honor at Preston Trail," sniped Kite.
The two can joke because they've been friends and competitors since 1966, when each was eliminated in the semifinals of the National Junior Championship at Whittier, Calif. Born four days apart in 1949, Kite and Wadkins have played together on five Ryder Cup teams. In 1970, Wadkins beat Kite by one stroke to win the U.S. Amateur. Either man can rattle off the other's career statistics as readily as his own.
"He was like a shadow," Kite said of Wadkins's pursuit of him on Sunday. "He's won 19 tournaments, and I promise you he wants his 20th badly."
For a while, Wadkins looked as if he would get it. Trailing Kite by three shots and playing with Chip Beck in the next-to-last twosome, Wadkins, the Tour's fifth-leading alltime money-winner, birdied three straight holes after making the turn. Kite then hit left of the 14th green and bogeyed out of the lead. Said Kite, "It just shows how fast something like that can get away."
At the 16th hole, Kite drove his tee ball deep into the right rough amid some trees, but he got a very lucky break when his line to the flag proved to be clear. Taking a six-iron, he hit his ball 20 feet from the pin, and from there he cross-handed it home for birdie and a share of the lead.
Up ahead, on the par-5 17th, Wadkins had a makeable 18-footer for birdie, but he charged too hard and rolled his ball four feet past. "I had in the back of my mind the putt on 15 I hit dead center and left one turn short," Wadkins said. Of the comeback putt on 17, which he also missed, Wadkins said, "Just a bad stroke."
That one bad stroke made it easy for Kite, who parred in for the victory. A final-round 66 by Wayne Levi, winner of four Tour events in 1990, produced a tie for third with Couples and Beck, three strokes behind Wadkins. Nobody else in the 31-man field came within eight strokes of Kite.
"I'm awfully pleased with my putter," said the new champion of champions, who got around the course on Sunday in just 28 putts. "I missed an eight-footer for birdie on 17, but all my other putts were dream putts."
Dream putts must lead to dreaming. "It's just a start," Kite said of his 15th career win, worth $144,000. "I'm really determined to make this the best year that I've ever had."
Christy Kite could only smile, remembering her husband's frustration on that transatlantic flight.
"I was convinced if he made up his mind, he would putt good again," she said, making a cross-handed compliment. "He just had to decide."
Kite required only 28 putts in the final round to ensure his lucrative payday at La Costa.
As Christy tells it, Tom's turnaround began after his debacle in Britain.
As he demonstrated anew last week, Kite's short game has always been his long suit.