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U.S. OPEN : Kite Has Point--and the Pressure : He Leads Simpson by One in Bid for First Major

June 18, 1989|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Curtis Strange has to contend with the pressure of trying to become the first player since Ben Hogan to win consecutive championships in the U.S. Open.

If he tries not to think about it, some reporter is sure to remind him.

Now the pressure has shifted slightly to Tom Kite, who became the third-round leader Saturday by shooting a 69 for a 54-hole total of 205.

Kite held a one-stroke lead over Scott Simpson and was three strokes ahead of Strange, who slumped to a 73 at Oak Hill Country Club after shooting a 64 Friday.

Now Kite, the PGA Tour's third all-time leading money-winner, is being reminded that he has never won a major championship in an otherwise extremely successful career.

Asked about his emotions going into the final round today on a course that was lashed by rain overnight and was made soggier by two brief showers Saturday, Kite said: "It's the same as the Players Championship. I anticipate it. I welcome it. I want to be nervous. There are a lot of people entered in the tournament who don't have an opportunity to be nervous."

Kite, who won the Players Championship, acknowledged that he doesn't have total control of his emotions, adding, "And neither does anyone else this week."

Strange, who had a one-shot lead over Kite and a two-shot edge over Simpson and Jay Don Blake after 36 holes, was critical of his three-over-par round.

"I played bad and putted bad and made some dumb shots on top of that, and I didn't feel right on the practice tee," he said.

Kite, who was paired with Strange and Simpson, commented on Strange's round by saying:

"I'm hard-pressed to say that he played badly. Nothing happened. He just didn't capitalize on his birdie opportunities. Three bogeys on a U.S. Open course is not unheard of."

When Strange was apprised of Kite's remarks, he said wryly, "I don't know who he was looking at all day."

The start of the tournament was delayed until 12:51 p.m., EDT, because of the rain that drenched the course during the night. The players then went off in threesomes from both the first and 10th tees.

It rained briefly at 5:30 p.m. and then again much harder at 6:55 p.m., but play wasn't suspended.

"Conditions were tough out there," Strange said. "The course was soggy and saturated. There was also wind. I didn't play well, but the conditions made it worse."

Only six players were under par after 54 holes--Kite, Simpson, Strange, Blake, Larry Nelson and Jumbo Ozaki.

Nelson and Ozaki each shot a 68 and were tied with Blake, who had a 72, at 209, four shots behind Kite.

Even though Strange didn't get anything going in his round, he's still in contention to emulate Hogan's accomplishment of winning the Open in 1950 and '51.

"I'm not out of it," Strange said. "Ill have a chance tomorrow if I get some early birdies and get my rhythm going."

He didn't have any birdies Saturday, just 15 pars and three bogeys.

Kite didn't get off to an auspicious start, making bogeys on the fourth and fifth holes.

"It was shaky," he said. "I missed some short putts, and it was shocking because I've been putting well."

Kite has recently adopted a cross-handed putting style that has served him well.

However, he got in the groove at the ninth hole with a 35-foot putt for a birdie. He then made birdie putts of 18, 10 and five feet at the 10th, 12th and 14th holes, respectively.

So Kite was the leader, at six under par for the tournament, going to the 15th hole. He three-putted there for a bogey but still had a two-stroke lead over Simpson and Strange at that juncture.

Simpson, who also shot a 69, made a birdie putt at the par-four, 439-yard 16th hole to pull within one stroke of Kite.

Kite saved par on the par-four, 458-yard 17th after hitting a wedge four feet from the pin. Simpson came out of a bunker to get his tap-in par, while Strange missed a 15-foot putt for his third bogey.

So the last threesome went onto the par-four, 440-yard 18th hole. Kite had a tap-in putt for a par; Simpson saved par with a four-foot putt, and Strange missed a 15-footer for a birdie, settling for par.

"I really , really wanted to make that putt at 18," Strange said.

Blake, who has yet to win on the tour in three years of competition, was challenging until he bogeyed the 15th, 16th and 17th holes.

Nevertheless, he said he felt good about his position. As for his three bogeys, he said, "I hit only one bad shot, a drive at 16. Those things happen. You think you've hit a good shot, but it doesn't end up that way."

Simpson, the former USC star who won the Open in 1987, said he has a great chance to win after shooting a 69.

"Win, or not, I'll play as good as I can and not think about winning a second U.S. Open," he said. "Will I watch the scoreboard? No, it doesn't do me any good to watch it. It's too distracting. "

Simpson doesn't believe that Kite, 39, needs to enhance his stature by winning a major tournament.

"There's just a small line between winning and lose," he said. "You can be a top player in the game, as Kite is, and not win a major."

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