ROCHESTER, N.Y. — If you saw Tom Kite hanging around the clubhouse or first tee at your club, chances are you'd try to get a game with him. You might even be tempted to offer him shots.
I mean, he doesn't look like a guy you'd call The Hawk, or The Slammer. He's no Golden Bear. What he looks like is a guy who might yip a three-foot putt. Who might choke if the press bets get in double figures.
First of all, there are those glasses. They're just smaller than truck windshields or department store windows. He has this curly red hair and freckles. He grins a lot. If he had a dog, he could play Little Orphan Annie.
You wouldn't want him for a partner in a four-ball at Wilshire or even a Saturday scramble on your home muni course.
He's one of the best golfers in the world but don't tell anybody. He's a well-kept secret. Tom cooperates with that image. Tom likes to creep up on you. Also, on a golf course or a tournament. He doesn't like to wake it up and have it fight back.
He's leading the U.S. Open as the sun sets over the hills of western New York and the storm clouds continue to hover over the Oak Hill site of the tournament.
Tom is not supposed to be leading tournaments. He's supposed to finish second. He does that better than anybody this side of the German Army. He's the Second-Hand Rose of the game.
He is the third-leading money-winner of all time in the game, topped only by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. He is not flashy, charismatic, just good. He is so steady and consistent and unassuming, you'd hand him your coat at a party. Hollywood would cast him as the best friend.
In a sport filled with club-throwers and tantrum-throwers, he is so good-natured you might ask him to watch your dog while you made a phone call. Some people at a Masters once asked him if he would mind taking their picture. He didn't.
When most golfers win nearly $5 million, 12 tournaments, and finish in the top 10 in 21 out of 26 tournaments in one year, people want them to write a book, go on the Tonight Show, give them instruction or design a line of clubs or clothes. With Kite, they say, "How come you never won a major?"
It comes up to haunt Tom Kite. It's almost a standing lead: "Tom Kite, who has never won a major . . . " It may be on his gravestone.
It's probably an historic injustice. Few players strike the ball with the consistent excellence of a Tom Kite. Few players have won as many tournaments. Only two have won more money. Almost none make the top 10 as regularly.
But when he comes into the press tent at the U.S. Open here this week, the general questioning begins with a reporter tactfully clearing his throat and trying not to look insincere as he asks: "Tom, do you think a career can be fulfilled when you haven't won a major?"
No one quite says: "Tom, do you choke when it's the Open or the Masters?" They don't have to. Kite knows where they're coming from. He's been there all his life.
When he first came out of Texas as a young collegian, Tom Kite wasn't the hopeful of every locker room from Ft. Worth to the Rio Grande. Ben Crenshaw was. Tom got used to playing in the shadow.
What he never got used to was the notion he was playing for money, not history. His style of play, so methodical if impeccable, created the suspicion that Tom Kite was a guy who would go for a sure four if the alternative was to risk an eight. They said he would go for the fat part of the green, the safe side of the fairway, the lag putt. He would make 72 if to try for 67 might lead to 79.
A generation weaned on an Arnold Palmer, who played every hole as if he would make a two or a 12, quickly relegated Kite to a spear-carrier role.
Was it a bum rap? Well, Tom Kite is not your basic Arnold Palmer athlete. Arnold was built along the lines of your stronger middleweight contender. He went after a golf course like Roberto Duran against a guy with a cut over his eye.
Kite doesn't exactly romance the golf course but at 5-feet-8, 150 pounds, and with eyesight just good enough for the big E on the chart without glasses, Kite can never go the caveman route or for the one-round knockout. Kite is out to out-think the golf course. He can't cover up mistakes hitting a three-wood out of deep rough with a blacksmith's arms like a Snead or Palmer.
He's not exactly defending himself against a golf course. He's just not trying to drag it back to the cave by the hair.
It would be so fitting for him to win a National Open, it probably won't happen. Majors have been won by guys who seldom win anything else.
The guys in the hunt with Kite as this Open goes into its final round include some who are as qualified and deserving as he--but they also include two guys who have never won anything, two guys who have never won in this country, a guy who has already won his Open but only half as many tournaments as Kite.
But who says a U.S. Open is fair? It's as full of malice as a park mugger.
Kite sighs and admits he probably won't light up the course in the final round. "I'll probably come out there in some really flashy outfit," he grins. "A nice bold gray and a white visor. Black shoes, Navy slacks. I'll dazzle 'em."
He'd really like to bore people to death. With a nice, undramatic, bogey-free round just good enough to win a U.S. Open by a shot.
Not that he expects it to re-do his image. The line will then say: "Tom Kite, who has won over $5 million but only one major. . . . " Tom will smile sweetly. He always does.