If an 18-year career can be redefined by a single swing on an unloved course in a not-quite-major championship, then Tom Kite's career was just that on Sunday at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Kite, a thinking man's golfer, held a two-stroke lead over Bruce Lietzke and Chip Beck in The Players Championship—the PGA Tour's "fifth major"—as he marched up the fairway of the 497-yard, par-5 16th hole. Kite's ball lay 210 yards from the hard, contoured green, which has water halfway around it. All week the green had been about as receptive to fairway-wood and long-iron shots as the back of a rhino. The wind was gusting from left to right, toward the water, at up to 20 mph, and the pin was set on the right side. Beck. Kite's playing partner, had a poor lie in the rough and would have to lay up.
The smart play for Kite was to do the same, right? So what was a steady, conservative guy like Kite, who needed only to par in to win, doing with a four-wood in his hands? Who had to have the eagle here, Kite or Beck?
"I had a golf tournament to win," said Kite afterward. "I was trying to build up the lead as much as I could."
Beck couldn't believe Kite's choice of club. Lietzke said he doubted he would have tried it. Greg Norman, who had finished with a six-under-par 282 and was watching on television in the press room, rolled his eyes at Kite's decision.
Kite swung hard, fearlessly aiming to the left of the flag, and the ball made a long, gentle arc before landing dead center on the green. Whereupon it bounced up and scooted across the putting surface toward the water...closer...closer...before being grabbed by the long grass six inches from the drink.
"I was lucky," said Kite, who has led something of a charmed life of late. Two weeks ago, tied for the lead with Davis Love III at the 72nd hole of the Nestle Invitational, at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., Kite knocked his approach shot into the water and double-bogeyed. But he was given a reprieve when Love also double-bogeyed. Kite went on to beat Love in the playoff for his first win since June 1987.
Now, seeking back-to-back victories—the first such in his career—Kite chipped onto the 16th green and two-putted from four feet for par. He didn't need birdies. He just needed to get back to the clubhouse with his Titleist dry, and after he survived that nervy four-wood into the crosswind, the treacherous 17th and 18th holes must have seemed as wide as cornfields. Even a 60-foot putt up the three-tiered 18th green didn't faze Kite. He calmly lagged to 18 inches, then tapped in for a round of 71—one of only eight subpar rounds on Sunday—to go with his 69-70-69, for a nine-under 279 and a one-shot victory over Beck, who birdied the 18th from 20 feet to finish second.
The $243,000 Kite earned for his TPC victory—along with the $144,000 Bay Hill booty—put him in the top spot on this year's money list, with $561,723 in six tournaments. At 39, Kite now has 12 Tour wins and 22 second-place finishes, and has quietly moved into third place on the alltime money-winning list, behind Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, with more than $4.75 million in earnings. Yet, for all that, the personable Kite is not even the most famous golfer in his hometown of Austin, Texas. That honor belongs to his former University of Texas teammate Ben Crenshaw. "For years everyone has said Tom Kite's a pretty good player, he's done this and done that, but he's never won a major," Kite said on Sunday. "Well, after today you're going to have a tough time convincing me that this tournament is not a major. I'm sure going to call it one."
That should warm the cockles of PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman's heart. He has been seeking that designation for the TPC almost since it began, in 1974, although the label of major, like the emperor's new clothes, is mostly in the imagination of the beholder. What the heck. It's Beman's show. He can call the TPC anything he wants. Maybe he should name it The Fifth Major and be done with it. He has already changed the event's name—though not its initials—from the original moniker. Tournament Players Championship, to The Players Championship, in the not-so-subtle hope that The Players will evoke thoughts of the Masters.
But make no mistake, the Masters this is not. The tournament does have a great field, lured to the swamps of Ponte Vedra by $1.35 million in prize money and a 10-year exemption for the winner. With the exception of European stars Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, every top player in the world showed up last week. But how can a tournament that aspires to be a major be played on a golf course that seems to have been created in Toontown? Only a windmill is missing to qualify Sawgrass as one of the top crazy-golf tracks in Florida.
Bob Gilder, who finished tied for 34th, calls it "a Mickey Mouse course. There are still too many goofball things that can happen to you."
Curtis Strange, who matched Gilder's two-over-par 290, calls it funky. "It's more playable than it was in years past, but there's still some awful deep bunkers out there," he says. "And don't go backing off some of those greens. You might hurt yourself."
Or drown. If you have a hankering to see the world's best golfers lining up putts while teetering gingerly on pressure-treated lumber, then the 132-yard, island-green, par-3 17th, the signature hole of the Pete Dye-designed course, is for you. "It's probably the most photographed hole in golf, and I recognize what it's done for this tournament, but I don't like it," says Kite. "There ought to be a place where you can bail out. The way it is now, it may be the only hole in the world where you can't make 4. Put it on the green, you'll make 2 or 3. Put it in the water and make 5."
Nicklaus said, "I've been hitting a driver all week, because I finally realized that I'm going to get in those crazy-looking mounds anyway. I might as well get in them 20 yards closer to the hole. You have to play this course aggressively because there's no other way to get around." Nicklaus's new approach appeared to work. After missing the cut here for the past three years, he shot a surprising 71-72-68 and was in the hunt before ballooning to 78 on Sunday.
Last Thursday, during a windless opening round, the field went after the course with a vengeance. The greens were the softest they would be all week and held approach shots like a dart board. Forty-nine players broke par, and the lowest score was turned in by Keith Clearwater, who finished bogey-bogey and still shot 65.
Temporarily humbled, the course started to show its nasty side on Friday when a breeze picked up and the greens dried out. All of a sudden, short-iron and wedge shots, square-grooved or not, were bounding crazily off the greens and into the so-called "gravity pits," the grass potholes on the perimeters.
After opening with a 66, Lietzke shot 69 on Friday and seemed on the verge of running away from the field in the early stages of Saturday's wild and memorable third round. In the first seven holes he moved to 12 under par, which gave him a five-stroke lead. Then he must have started thinking about the terrible implications of winning. Sure, sure, there was that nice fat first-place payout. But what a price to pay! A 10-year exemption! "As far as I'm concerned, that would be like a curse," said the 37-year-old Lietzke, who lists "serious" fishing and racing cars as his hobbies. He has won 11 times on the Tour and last year was 19th on the money list, with $500,815, but he has not been motivated to play in the British or U.S. Open for several years. "I'm a guy who's always looking for ways to retire," he says.
Lietzke played the front nine in 33 and looked to be on cruise control—no missed fairways, no missed greens. Then his black, prototype Tommy Armour putter, which he had been referring to affectionately as the Stealth bomber, began misfiring. Lietzke three-putted four greens on the back side, dropped five shots to par. and fell into a five-way tie for third, one stroke behind Kite and two behind Beck.
Defending TPC champion Mark McCumber briefly took the lead at nine under after back-to-back birdies on 15 and 16, but then he four-putted the island green, stubbing a one-inch tap-in. "It's only fair—hometown boy spots the rest of the field a shot," said McCumber, a Jacksonville native who treated his gaffe with humor. "I didn't think it was possible to actually hit the ball and still leave it short."
But it was Nicklaus's move to the leader board that caused the most buzzing on Saturday. After bogeying the par-5 11th hole, Nicklaus told his son Steve, who was his caddie, "That six is going to cost this course four birdies." Bang-o. The Bear was back. Nicklaus, who has not been in serious contention since winning the 1986 Masters, rang up birdies on 12, 14, 16 and 17 to finish with a 68, matching the best score of the day, four shots behind Beck. Nicklaus has long been bothered by a bad back, but lately he has been able to play without pain and is actually looking forward to the Masters next month. "Golf's a funny game," he said. "You think you're never going to see a leader board again, and then you sink a couple of birdies and shoot 67 or 68. and you wonder why you haven't done it every day."
The Players followed at least one tradition of a major: It brought the cream to the top. When Sunday dawned, bright and windy. Kite, McCumber, Gary Koch, Crenshaw, Fred Couples, Lietzke, Norman, Gil Morgan, Nicklaus and Craig Stadler were all bunched within four shots of Beck. But of those, only Kite and Morgan, both skilled wind players, were able to break par over the front nine. The other nine contenders played that stretch of swamp and pot bunkers and slip-'n'-slide greens in a combined 16 over, the most notable casualty being Beck, who turned in a dismal 41. Kite took a share of the lead with a birdie on the par-5, 511-yard 2nd hole and was never behind after that, at one point on the back side increasing his margin to three strokes.
All week, whenever someone had started to pull away from the field, the course had reached up and grabbed him. That seemed to be happening again when Kite three-putted from 60 feet at the 14th for a bogey. It cut his lead to two strokes over Lietzke and Beck, who had recovered and was on his way to a back-nine 32. Kite continued to struggle on 15, needing a six-foot putt to save par. Which brought him to the 16th and his dramatic four-wood.
The moxie it took to try that shot left a lasting impression on Kite's peers. "That's as aggressive a shot as you can hit," said Lietzke, who once said that if Norman were at one end of the golfing spectrum in terms of aggressiveness. Kite would be at the other end. "I've never told Tom how bad I feel about that remark, because I couldn't have been more wrong," said Lietzke on Sunday afternoon. "You can't play as well as he can in the wind without being aggressive. It looks like it's going to be a big year for the man from Austin."
That's Kite, not Crenshaw. And it already has been.