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SECOND THOUGHTS TOM KITE WON THE MASTERS THAT WAS PLAYED BY ALL BUT ONE MEMBER OF THE FIELD

April 21, 1997
April 21, 1997

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April 21, 1997

Faces In The Crowd

SECOND THOUGHTS TOM KITE WON THE MASTERS THAT WAS PLAYED BY ALL BUT ONE MEMBER OF THE FIELD

Imagine, if you can, last week's Masters without Tiger Woods.
Instead of a singular exhibition of power and poise, the
tournament would have been a collective scramble alternately
exciting and unsightly, a war of attrition fought by several
rather than dominated by one.

This is an article from the April 21, 1997 issue Original Layout

In our imaginary tournament, Costantino Rocca of Italy, the
golfing Zelig who was there to fill out the scenery when John
Daly won at St. Andrews in 1995 and who on Sunday walked Augusta
National with Woods in the final pairing, took the early lead in
the last round before gradually fading to 75 and a tie for fourth.

Rocca was joined there by Paul Stankowski, a blithe 27-year-old
who must have realized during the final round that his second
Masters was not the Hawaiian Open. Although he spent the entire
week on the leader board, three quick bogeys on Sunday led to a
closing 74.

Nearly everything went right on the final day for the winless,
yet seemingly bemused, Tommy Tolles, whose out-of-the-pack 67
tied Steve Elkington for the day's best round and left him a
stroke out of a playoff for our green jacket. "Without one
player in the field, I actually stood my ground well this week,"
he said. "It was a rough week, but it was a wonderful week."

Tom Watson again followed the Sisyphean pattern that has plagued
him in recent major championships. After coming out fast on
Sunday with three birdies in the first five holes, Watson made
triple bogey at the 7th, recovered with three more birdies--he
led the field, including Woods, with 22 birdies over the four
rounds--but finished with two late bogeys. In a Woodsless
tournament he came in third, one stroke behind Stankowski and
two behind the winner.

Who, we know, was Tom Kite, already a 19-time winner on Tour and
the man skeptics have come to think of as over the hill at 47.
Kite's next challenges, after serving as captain to the U.S.
Ryder Cup this September in Spain, will probably be on the
Senior tour, but subtract Woods from the field last week, and
the major most suited to the big hitters with sure putting
strokes would have gone to a short knocker whose work on the
greens has been suspect for years. To cope with Augusta
National's superfast greens, Kite worked to lengthen and slow
down his cross-handed putting stroke, which had become short and
quick. He had only four three-putt greens last week, which was
the key to his score of six-under-par 282.

Kite's final-round 70 wasn't pretty--he chunked a short pitch
into a bunker on the par-5 15th and made bogey--but if Woods
were still an economics major at Stanford, it would've been good
enough to win. And typical of Kite, the round was highlighted by
a moment that underscored the tenacious quality of his play.
After Kite holed a six-footer for a birdie on the 17th, he was
moved to say, "Ben Crenshaw couldn't have stroked it better."
Crenshaw had a tournament-low 111 putts.

Imagining aside, Kite has been almost absent from the highest
levels of competition for the last four years. Confronted with
some of the most difficult scoring conditions at the Masters in
recent years, Kite opened with a 77 that included two balls in
the water, but thereafter held together what had been a fragile
game. By the end, he had hit 55 of 72 greens in regulation,
which tied Woods for the best in the field. In addition to being
an important personal victory, Kite's second-place finish in a
major--even if it was by 12 strokes--was worth 180 Ryder Cup
points, moving him to 28th in the team standings and putting him
in the running to become the first playing captain since Arnold
Palmer, in 1963. "It was nice to...I hate to say 'be in the
hunt,' because obviously no one was in the hunt today," said
Kite, who had finished second at Augusta twice before, in 1983
and '86. "But I won my golf tournament. Tiger won the other one."

Kite hasn't won a Tour event since early in the 1993 season,
when he took the Bob Hope Classic with a 90-hole Tour-record
score of 35 under par and followed up by winning the Los Angeles
Open two weeks later. The year before, he had won the only major
championship of his career, the U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach. At
the time, even with Nick Faldo in top form, the always
consistent Kite was considered the best player in the world. "I
didn't think anybody could touch me," he says. "The game was so
easy."

And then, suddenly, his moment passed. Soon after L.A., Kite
ruptured two disks while playing with his twin sons, missed the
cut in the 1993 Masters and was sidelined for a month. Although
an exercise program eventually healed his back to the point
where the pain has never recurred, Kite's play hasn't come close
to his preinjury level. After finishing 22nd on the money list
in 1994, Kite fell off the map in '95, plummeting to 104th. Last
year he was 66th, primarily because of one good tournament, a
second-place finish in the Greater Hartford Open. "That's the
nature of the game," Kite said in the darkest days of his slump.
"You can get it, but it never lasts very long."

But when that magical it goes away for a long stretch of time,
one wonders if it is gone for good. While Kite says his back
injury wasn't the cause of his slump, he has no other definitive
explanation. The death of his lifelong teacher and friend,
Harvey Penick, the week of the '95 Masters hit Kite hard but
certainly did not affect his swing, and Kite believes that as he
has grown older his swing mechanics and ball striking have
become sounder. He is quicker to blame poor putting, a neglected
short game and careless course management--parts of golf that
are rooted in confidence--for his demise. "You can't hit the
ball purely enough to shoot low if you are not making anything,"
says Kite. "Mr. Penick always said you improve your ball hitting
so you don't have any high scores, but you improve your short
game so you can shoot low scores."

As much as Kite hates to admit it, the player whom sports
psychologist Bob Rotella once called the most determined and
disciplined on Tour has been struggling to find anything
positive to build on. "I tend to beat myself up," says Kite. "My
dad [Tom Sr.] always felt if you worked really hard you would be
a success, but I've learned that that approach is a strength and
a weakness. It wasn't until I learned to let go a little bit
that I became a top player. You know: Work hard, but when you
play, play."

Kite is taking a similar philosophy to his Ryder Cup captaincy.
At Augusta he was animated in talking about the event with the
younger players who have a good chance of making the U.S. team,
bending Stankowski's ear about Valderrama even during the heat
of the final round.

"I'm enjoying the whole thing, especially getting to know the
young players on our Tour," says Kite, who played with Woods
during last Wednesday's par-3 tournament. "The Ryder Cup isn't
going to be a grind, and it's not hurting my game. It's probably
helping."

Since being named captain after the 1995 match, Kite has won two
unofficial tournaments, the Oki Pro-Am in Madrid in October,
which included a reasonably strong contingent of players from
the European tour, and the Shark Shootout in Thousand Oaks,
Calif., last November, at which he teamed with Jay Haas.

Although he admits he has gotten negative at times during his
slump, Kite is adamant that he has never lost his desire to play
and excel. "A few times, when my game or the putting,
especially, got really bad, I wondered: Is it over? Am I done?"
Kite says. "But then I'd think, Wait a minute. There are still
too many things I want to do in golf. My round on Sunday tells
me I'm right."

One of the hallmarks of Kite's career is how well he has bounced
back from disappointments. That trait has been tested as never
before over the last few years. Still, he hasn't gotten gun-shy.

"It hurts to want to win, to try to be the best [when you're
playing poorly]," he says. "But I don't mind the hurt because
that's what makes the wins mean so much. And that's why the next
one is going to be so great."

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Kite's in contention for his own Ryder Cup team.[Tom Kite golfing out of bunker]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Stankowski (left) hung near the top all week, while Tolles jumped up with a Sunday 67. [Paul Stankowski]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Tommy Tolles playing golf]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Fred Couples made a great escape at 13 in round 3 and wound up tied for 7th. [Fred Couples golfing out of creek]