There was a moment on Sunday, with 28 players still on the windswept Pebble Beach Golf Links and more than two hours of play remaining, when the U.S. Open was all but conceded to a fair-haired Scotsman named Colin Montgomerie—a.k.a. the Leader in the Clubhouse. At the 18th green, just as the LITC holed out for an even-par 288, Jack Nicklaus even told him, "Congratulations on your first U.S. Open victory."
At that very moment Tom Kite—who was leading Montgomerie by three strokes—stood in the rough off the seaside 7th green, trying to keep his balance in a 40-mph wind. He was surrounded by calamity. Third-round leader Gil Morgan, a 45-year-old nonpracticing optometrist, had just hit one over the cliff on number 6. Raymond Floyd and Paul Azinger were in dire straits somewhere up on the Cliffs of Doom, otherwise known as the 8th, 9th and 10th holes. On the 9th fairway, spectators were buzzing over double and triple bogeys—balls flattened by the wind, balls knocked onto the beach below, putts missed from inches because of rock-hard greens. And the par-4 10th had become a par-6, with the last seven pairings having produced seven double bogeys and three triple bogeys.
As for the damnable 7th, a 107-yard par-3—well, the grass surrounding Kite was still warm from the wrath of Nick Faldo, who had just taken five strokes to complete the hole. The day before, number 7 had required the simplest of pitches from the tee, a wedge and, for some, a sand wedge. On Sunday it required a six- or a seven-iron, and if a player didn't aim for Honolulu, his ball would settle near the 8th tee, in wiry, ankle-deep grass or, worse, down the cliff.
You probably know what happened next. Kite, who had blown a final-round lead in the 1989 Open by shooting a 78, took his 60-degree wedge, one of three wedges in his bag, and lifted his ball out of the grass and into the cup for a birdie.
June 28, 1992
The shot was eerily reminiscent of Tom Watson's tournament-winning chip-in on the par-3 17th in '82, the last time the U.S. Open was played at Pebble Beach, except that Kite didn't gallop around the green in exultation as Watson had done. He simply stood there in the grass, bearing an incredulous grin. "Watson only had one hole left to go, and I had the whole golf course left," said Kite later. "I couldn't allow myself to get as emotional as I would have liked."
Instead, Kite tamed himself—and the elements—for a steady 72 to finish with a three-under-par 285 and win the 92nd U.S. Open by two strokes over 1988 PGA champion Jeff Sluman, the only other man to break par over four rounds. To win, Kite had to kick a few "buts" on Sunday:
•No. 1 money-winner of all time, but he has never won a major;
•most consistent player of his generation, but he can't handle the pressure of a major championship;
•most dedicated grinder on the tour, but he can't decide which hand goes on top when he putts.
"Bugged the living daylights out of me," said Kite on Sunday about all the buts in his life. "That's all anybody ever wanted to talk about."
In truth Kite's failure to win a major, despite having earned more than $7 million in 20 years on the Tour, had bothered him more than he ever admitted. That nightmare in 1989 at Oak Hill, where Kite made two double bogeys and a triple bogey after taking a one-stroke lead into the final round, was the biggest weed in his garden. Going into Pebble Beach, he had played in 19 other U.S. Opens and disappointed in each. Ditto the British Open and the PGA Championship. This year he suffered the indignity of not receiving an invitation to the Masters, despite having won five tournaments and more than $2 million since 1989, when he was the Tour's leading money-winner, with $1.4 million.
One theory had it that Kite could win a major only if he shot a good score as an early starter in the final round and then waited for the field to back up to him or for a leader to fold. At Pebble Beach, of course, just the opposite happened: Montgomerie, who was 16 pairings ahead of Kite, was toasting his toes in the clubhouse while Kite, in the day's next-to-the-last twosome, fought the course in impossible conditions, trying to protect his lead. "From tee to green, it was not even close to one of the best tournaments I've ever had," Kite said, as baffled as he was thrilled by the outcome. "But as far as hanging in there and doing the things that were required on a very difficult golf course, this may have been the best."
Pebble Beach is an enigma. For the better part of the week the Monterey peninsular breezes were light, the skies gray and the scores low for an Open. In fact when Morgan sank a 25-foot putt at number 3 on Saturday, he became the first player in U.S. Open history to stand at 10 under par. Four holes later Morgan was at 12 under, seven shots ahead of his nearest competitor, a struggling 30-year-old pro from the Texas mini-tour named Andy Dillard, who had been anointed earlier in the week as the people's choice.
At that point, though, the wind picked up ever so slightly, and Morgan began throwing strokes back to the field. Starting at number 8, he went double bogey, bogey, double bogey, bogey, bogey, par, double bogey. So as he stood on the 15th tee, he had lost nine shots to par in seven holes—and sole possession of the lead. Suddenly dozens of players were in the game: Faldo, Kite, Ian Woosnam, Mark Brooks, Joey Sindelar, Gary Hallberg....
This abrupt proliferation of contenders was startling, because for two days the Open had been as parochial as an Oklahoma church picnic—Edmond, Okla., to be precise. Morgan lives on the access road to Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, and Dillard is a former Oklahoma State golfer who often joins former Cowboys and current Tour players Scott Verplank, Willie Wood and Bob Tway for friendly rounds with well-heeled club members. Morgan rarely plays when he's home, says Dillard, but the two men have long had a "honk and a wave" relationship.
The pair from Edmond brought a small-town naturalness to Pebble Beach. Morgan, whose father was in the cemetery-monument business, hails from Wewoka, Okla. (pop. 5,000). Dillard, who's from Tyler, Texas, is the son of a high school football coach who once had a chance to be an assistant at Texas A&M but turned down the job to spend more time with Andy.
"Andy's family has been his support group," said Wood, who shared a house with Dillard last week. "Without them, he knows he would probably be selling shirts in a pro shop somewhere."
It was as if two characters had wandered onto the course from Our Town. "I think those times were pretty good back then," said Morgan, talking of his childhood. You could almost hear the screen door slam and see fireflies in the yard as he spoke.
Morgan and Dillard both have faced adversity, although different kinds. The still-boyish-looking Morgan, who wound up third in the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, has won seven tournaments and almost $4 million, but a rotator-cuff injury in the mid-1980s left him with residual pain in his left shoulder and reduced expectations. "I really feel like I missed the best part of my career," he said last Friday.
Dillard's troubles are largely financial. A marginal player for three years, he cashed a ninth-place check for $34,000 at the 1986 International but missed keeping his Tour card by a thousand dollars in '88. He played the Hogan tour last year, to little effect, winning only $10,096 in 16 events. "If you don't finish in the top three money-winners, you're still going to be broke," said Dillard.
His recent efforts on the Texas mini-tour have been partly backed by loans from his parents, who cashed in a savings bond to help subsidize him. "If I could win a big check," he said on Friday, "the first thing I'd do is pay them back double their money." Dillard finished tied for 17th and pocketed $18,069.
Any similarities between the chubby Dillard and the trim, dignified Morgan were lost on Friday's galleries, which embraced Dillard as a "miniature" version of last summer's folk hero, PGA champion John Daly. When Dillard holed out a blind, 25-yard pitch on number 14 to reach six under, his fans were provoked to screams, yelps, cries of "Bubba!" and other Dalyesque excesses. As the gray earlyevening ceiling descended on the course, they tramped after their hero, filing into the empty bleachers behind every green, rattling out again after he finished putting and bestowing ovations on him at every turn. Dillard bogeyed number 17—"By that time, you really couldn't see the greens," he said. "I had no idea where my putt was going to break"—but on 18 he rolled in a 12-foot birdie by the light of a halogen lamp that hung on a nearby pine. The chilled crowd roared and chanted, "AN-dy!AN-dy!"
The parallels to Daly, who missed the cut last week, were compelling: the hard-scrabble background, the I-slept-in-the-car look, the history of golf hustling and racetrack betting, the rotund anatomy. But while Daly gave the impression at last summer's PGA of a young man harboring hurts and resentments, Dillard seized his moment with longing, not anger, in his eyes. "I've never been here," he said—meaning in the spotlight in the Open—"but I've played a hundred thousand rounds of golf in my life."
There were the usual silly, puzzling and poignant diversions before the momentum of competition took over. To wit:
•On Thursday, Ken Green threw his putter into the ocean off number 18 after shooting 76.
•On Friday, Faldo went up a tree after a ball, making like Tarzan for the amused fans. "That was a silly thing I did, swinging," he said. "After lifting up 16 stone, my arms felt as thick as my legs."
•Three-time NCAA champ Phil Mickelson, playing in his first tournament as a pro, missed the cut with a 68-81. Still, he finished with flair on Friday, using his driver to hit the ball 270 yards from the fairway to the 18th green for birdie.
•Nicklaus and Watson, winners of the two previous U.S. Opens held at Pebble Beach, in 1972 and '82, respectively, played together on Thursday and Friday—and missed the cut together. "We're not the same golfers we were 10 years ago," said Watson to Nicklaus as they walked up the 18th fairway on Friday, "but it was a pleasure playing with you." Later Nicklaus was more glib: "The way I played hasn't diminished my enthusiasm for Pebble Beach, but it has diminished my enthusiasm for my game."
Where had Montgomerie been during all this? Anybody's guess. When play started on Sunday he was tied for 28th, one of eight players bunched at two over par. That proved to be to his advantage, because the wind didn't begin to howl until he was well past the Cliffs of Doom. It was 2:07 p.m. when he walked off the 18th green with a two-under 70 to get the 288 that looked unbeatable to Nicklaus.
By then most of the players with lower scores were out on the course, taking a beating. Pebble was, in essence, unplayable. Take a seaside course, narrow the fairways, grow the rough to five inches, add disruptive gusts, and par, more often than not, becomes a pipe dream.
Morgan, still three under after a birdie putt from the back edge of the 5th green, wound up shooting an 81 for 13th place. Brooks shared the lead briefly at four under and then blew to an 84. Floyd, two under par early on Sunday, was five over after 10 holes. He had an 81. Other eye-popping Sunday scores: 79 (Woosnam and Seve Ballesteros), 80 (Azinger and Mark Calcavecchia), 83 (Hallberg) and 88 (1987 U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson). "It was brutal out there," said Sluman, who had a final-round 71.
For Kite, holes 8 through 10 were the gantlet. A good wind player since his formative years as an amateur in Texas, he saved bogey from the long grass below the green on number 9—"a wonderful bogey," is how he would describe it—and got the stroke back with a 30-foot birdie putt on number 12. "He was determined not to play safe or go into the four corners," said his caddie, Michael Carrick.
The test of Kite's aggressiveness came at the perplexing number 14, a par-5 that was difficult all week. The hole played downwind on Sunday, causing iron shots from the fairway to land near the flag and scoot off the back of the green. So Kite played a daring three-wood second shot to the left rough, short of the guarding bunker, and then lobbed a wedge shot to within two feet of the pin for his last birdie of the day. "The difference in Tom today was that he was so relaxed," said Carrick. "When he hit 40 feet past the hole out of the trap on number 4, he was actually laughing."
Kite bogeyed numbers 16 and 17—a regrettable lapse into the four-corners strategy Kite deplores—but by that time the wind had begun to slacken, and neither Montgomerie nor Sluman, the new LITC at one under par, expected Kite to give away the tournament. He did not. Leading by two strokes, Kite played driver, five-iron and wedge on the par-5 18th hole, and then two-putted for the win—and a moment of numbing joy. "I don't know what to say right now," he said. "I'm at a total loss. Obviously, it's so important. It means so much."
Back in Austin, Kite's longtime mentor and coach, Harvey Penick, watched from his wheelchair in his living room. At 87, Penick, the legendary teacher of Ben Crenshaw, Kathy Whitworth and Betsy Rawls as well as Kite, suffers from arthritis and doesn't travel anymore, but he was with Kite at the end. "I was so nervous, I had my toes doubled up the whole time," said Penick. "Now Tom has won the U.S. Open and Ben has won the Masters, and I am a very proud man."