When Tom Kite won the U.S. Open last summer, the golf establishment didn't know whether to throw its hat in the air or just sigh with relief.
There are certain things you like to see happen. You like to see Willie Mays win a batting title, Ted Williams win a triple crown, Bill Shoemaker win a Derby, Walter Johnson win a World Series game, an Unser win Indy. Guys who have paid their dues. Guys who have never needed to rely on luck--unless it's bad. Guys whose contemporaries know how good they are.
The U.S. Open, like all major championships in all sports, is capricious. It seems to reward mediocrity inopportunely.
The theory goes, anybody can win a Buick Classic. Only the aristocracy wins the Open. You go to join Jones, Hogan, Sarazen, Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino. You're a picture on a wall. You get your name on golf clubs.
So, it was entirely fitting for Tom Kite to join this distinguished company--winner of 17 tournaments, all-time leading money-winner with more than $7 million in lifetime earnings. And, yet, Tom had never before won a major. The Open was being won by guys who had won only one other tournament in their lives, by guys who were nearly $6 million in arrears of Kite in money won and by one-shot specialists who would never win again.
Kite was a golfer's golfer. A sunny, jaunty fellow with the owlish horn-rimmed glasses and the red hair and freckle-prone complexion usually covered by a plantation hat, you always knew where to find Kite--in the field and on the fairway. If there was a tournament played, Kite was in it. He wasn't "the Shark," or "the Hawk," or "the Walrus" or a Bear of any color. He didn't have Kite's Knights. In fact, when you said Tom, you probably meant Weiskopf or Watson or Bolt--or even, Shaw.
But Kite was a very model of impeccable play. Nine out of 10 times in the 1980s, he made the cut in the U.S. Open. And, you didn't have to look very far down the leader board to find him.
The order of finish says he was ninth in the 1989 Open. It kind of lies. Actually, Kite was leading that tournament right into the middle of the final round, when he came up to a hole with water and dense rough on the right and he hit a tee shot that was a little off-line. It found water and left him behind trees. He tripled-bogeyed the hole, lost all chance. A few moments before, Scott Simpson hit a worse tee shot on the hole--so much worse that it kept going until it hit an open spot with a playable shot to the green.
Those things kept happening to Kite. In the Masters, in the '80s, he finished sixth, fourth, second, fifth, second again--one shot behind Nicklaus in 1986--and then last year, for the first time since 1974, didn't qualify for the field. It was calculated injustice. There were guys in the field who would need strokes to play him even.
He never shoots in the 80s. "That's a bad habit I don't want to get into," he says, grinning.
He rarely makes more than a bogey, and not many of those. This year, he has shot one 64, five 65s, four 66s, eight 68s and eight 69s in tournament play. He has won twice, has been second once and third once, and has been seventh or better eight times. His worst score was 76, and he shot that only once.
He gets many rewards for winning an Open, but perhaps the ultimate one comes to him this week at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert where the annual Skins Game pits golf's superstars--Fred Couples, Greg Norman, Payne Stewart and Kite--against each other in a unique format of match play.
Golfers are picked for a Skins Game as much for their recognizability as their prowess, and Kite's elevation to this elite company is a little like being knighted by the queen. This is the House of Lords.
But, that's the good news of winning an Open. The bad news is, what do you do for an encore?
Curtis Strange, a winner of two Opens in a row, in '88 and '89, hasn't won a thing since. Payne Stewart, who won the Open last year, hasn't won a thing since. Hale Irwin, who won the Open in '90 and a tournament a week later, hasn't won since. Scott Simpson, who won the '87 Open, has won only one tournament since and Andy North, who won the '78 and '85 Opens, hasn't won a thing since--and won only one tournament before.
Is the Open a hoodoo? Are the pressures and distractions that go with being the Open champion sufficient to dull the competitive edge and lure the player into playing a kind of complicated customer golf?
Kite is aware of the pitfalls.
"They won't apply in my case," he says, adding, "winning an Open opens a window of opportunity."
It allows you to acquire quick cash without taking the A-game out of the bag--things like appearance money, illegal in this country but perfectly permissible abroad. You go from a crack player to a crack-up. You go from hungry to complacent. You get slovenly.