What's He Trying to Prove?

March 14, 2005
March 14, 2005

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March 14, 2005

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What's He Trying to Prove?

There's a simple reason why Tom Kite, 55 and a Hall of Famer, traded the sure-thing senior circuit for a long-shot return to the PGA Tour: He might not get another chance

The green was 250 yards away, downwind. Tom Kite knows what he needs: a birdie-birdie finish. He stood in the middle of the fairway--where else would he be?--on his penultimate hole last Friday and took it all in, the water in front, the bunkers left, the grassy mounds over the green, the glitzy Doral clubhouse beyond it. He first played the Blue Monster in 1973, as a Tour rookie, and he is still trying to pick apart the old Dick Wilson track. Kite flies his nine-iron, one of his many finesse clubs, 132 yards, just as he did when he won at Doral in '84.

This is an article from the March 14, 2005 issue

On adjoining fairways the young'uns were playing that new game, smashgolf, in which a nine-iron goes 165 yards and the ball stops on its skid mark. Kite, 55, a Hall of Famer, scratched his capped head. He was thinking what everybody was thinking: Go for it or lay up? He was playing in a PGA Tour event. The rush was still there.

Kite was bunking at the Doral resort, with a room, at his request, nearly on the practice tee. (Where else would it be?) On one luscious South Florida night last week he and his wife, Christy, left the Doral compound and ventured off to Miami Beach, looking for a sidewalk dinner amid the Ocean Drive in-line skaters and the shirtless bodybuilders and the girls in their short shorts. Can you have millions in the bank and travel by private jet and still be middle class? Going by the Kites, the answer is yep. They don't do chic. (The medallion on Christy's favorite necklace is a kite.) The couple, a little bemused, took in the entire South Beach scene, inspected some menus, settled on a place with no wait and carried on with their 30-year conversation about golf. This night's subject: Tom's return to the PGA Tour.

"You know, every golfer who's doing this has an ego," Kite told his wife. "You want to hear clapping for your good shots. You want people to know what you've done in the game." Kite never needed to be a celebrity. He can't imagine the restricted life Tiger Woods must lead. But what Kite has realized about himself is this: You never grow tired of the clapping, and you never lose your desire to play on golf's biggest stages. His son knows what he's talking about. Not 20-year-old David, who's on one of the bottom rungs of the South Carolina golf team, but David's hammy twin brother, Paul, who's studying acting at Evansville, in Indiana, and dreaming of Hollywood. (Their older sister, Stephanie, a former gymnast, works for a company that puts on golf tournaments.)

In the word-association game, ego does not come up with Tom Kite. Even in the early 1990s, when he was the career money leader, Kite played the humble card. He started practicing modesty as a pudgy junior member of the Austin Country Club, reading greens through thick glasses and going head-to-head with the club's golden boy, the "gorgeous" (Christy's word) Ben Crenshaw. Their careers were similar, except that Crenshaw in victory was dazzling, and Kite, even with a trophy in hand, still looked like the night clerk at the Holiday Inn where the caddies stayed. But last week he was doing something Crenshaw never did. He was playing in a regular Tour event with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh for $5.5 million and the prospect of being on an ESPN highlight tape all night long. At some point in the Tiger Era--it might have been this year--Doral morphed from a golf tournament into an event. If Kite wanted to hear clapping, he had come to the right place.

A year ago such a move would have been out of the question. In 2003 and the first half of '04, Kite had a severe case of the yips. He was playing some of the best golf of his life from tee to green, but on certain short putts he could barely make a backswing, then on the forward swing his right hand would twitch spastically. Nobody, not even Kite's longtime psychologist, Bob Rotella, could find a cure. The malady had the potential to claim his career.

Christy wasn't going to let that happen. She knows golf (she played at Arizona State in the early '70s), and she knows her husband's game (she's been a steadfast presence outside the ropes for 30 years). Last May, Christy went online, found pictures of Tour player Chris DiMarco using the claw putting grip and taped them all over Kite's workshop. In desperation he gave the grip a try. In Tom's version of it, he places his left hand on the putter conventionally and lays his right hand at the bottom of the club's grip as if he were drawing lightly with a thick, soft pencil. He says it almost eliminates the role of the right hand in the stroke.

There was immediate, marked improvement. In June, Kite was the co-medalist in one of the 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifiers, which got him to Shinnecock Hills, where he made the cut. He tied for second in the Senior British Open and for third in the U.S. Senior Open. In August, Kite won the Champions tour stop near St. Paul, his first senior win in nearly two years. His putting was nothing like spectacular, but at least there were no seizures at impact.

The highlight was Shinnecock. The New York crowds were so alive, and he played and practiced with his old Tour friends, including Brad Faxon, Fred Funk, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III. He was at home on the demanding course. He loved the whole thing.

At Shinnecock, Christy had rented a two-bedroom bungalow near the course, with one bedroom for the Kites and the other for Kite's caddie, Sandy Jones, one of the few female touring caddies. One night Rotella came by for a visit. Kite's adrenaline, from playing in golf's center ring again, overwhelmed the little house. "You should take your top 50 exemption next year," Rotella said.

He was referring to a PGA Tour qualifying rule that allows golfers in the top 50 in career earnings to take a onetime, one-year Tour exemption. Kite had never paid any attention to it--he had never needed to--but suddenly he was very interested. Christy, back online again, immediately looked up her husband's ranking on the career money list. He was 38th.

By the end of the year Kite had fallen to 44th. He knew if he didn't claim the exemption for 2005, he'd lose it altogether. In December he told the Tour to sign him up for this season. He wanted to feel the juice again.

Entering Doral, Kite had played in three regular Tour events this year: the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he made the cut and finished near the bottom; the Hope, at which he shot rounds of 71, 69, 74 and 70 and was seven shots short of qualifying for the fifth and final round; and the rain-plagued Nissan Open in L.A., where he shot 74 and 72. The week before Doral, Kite played in a senior event in Tampa and tied for ninth. Nothing too good. There were players on the Champions tour waiting to see him run back to the no-cut circuit where the golf is good but the atmosphere sleepy.

Kite couldn't care less what others say. You'd never know it, but he has a mile-wide independent streak. In 1980 (spurred by short-game guru Dave Pelz) Kite invented the 60-degree lob wedge. He was the last golfer to win a major--the '92 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach--using a persimmon driver. In '98, Kite says, he became the first player to undergo LASIK surgery and tossed the thick glasses. In 2002 he became the first prominent senior player to use a regular-Joe carry bag; now there are scores of them on the Champions tour. The only reason Kite has switched to a big Titleist bag is because the company demanded it as a term of his endorsement contract.

This year Kite became the oldest player ever to use the career top 50 rule to declare himself exempt on Tour. Between now and the U.S. Open, he'll play at least a half-dozen Tour events and try to qualify for the U.S. Open and the British Open. In July he'll take stock of himself and his game and determine a schedule for the rest of the year. Either way, he'll play in the senior majors and some other Champions tour events.

Kite no longer gets the showcase tee times he once did. Last Friday at Doral his starting time was 7 a.m., 10th tee, in the first group of the day. He started hitting balls at 6:15, in the predawn darkness, working by floodlight.

The day before, he had played a solid opening round, a two-under 70. He can't play smashgolf, but he can play the same game that Glen Day, Fred Funk and Jeff Maggert do. On Friday he was one over for the day through 16 holes and one under for the tournament. His guess was that the cut would be three under. Standing on the tee of the par-5 8th (his 17th hole), Kite was looking to close with two birdies. His tee shot was solid and straight, and now he was looking at the 250-yard approach shot, downwind.

"I have to go for it," Kite said.

"No you don't," his caddie, Jones, replied.

He laid up well short of the water, nearly holed his third shot with a sand wedge and tapped in for birdie. The greenside stands were filled--Tiger would soon be coming through--and Kite acknowledged their applause with his familiar curled-lips smile.

He was two under. He needed one more and had one more chance to do it. His birdie putt on the 9th was tracking all the way. It tickled the lip ... and stayed out.

The old pro went into the scorer's room, signed his card and studied the field's scores on a computer. When he came out, somebody asked him if two under would be good enough to make the cut. "It's going to miss by a shot," the Hall of Famer said tersely. "It's going to miss by a shot." He was hot.

He packed up the car and got on the road, headed for the Tour's next stop. It might as well have been 1973 again. Tom Kite had found a way to turn back time.

"You know, every golfer who's doing this has an ego," Kite told his wife, Christy. "YOU WANT TO HEAR CLAPPING for your good shots. You want people to know what you've done in the game."
Somebody asked Kite if two under would be good enough to make the cut. "It's going to miss by a shot," the Hall of Famer said tersely. "IT'S GOING TO MISS BY A SHOT." He was hot.
TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by David WalbergGETTING A GRIP Thanks to the claw, Kite got rid of the yips and caught fire.COLOR PHOTODAVID KENNEDY/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMANHALLMARKS Kite (clockwise from above) with mentor Harvey Penick in 1993, winning the '92 U.S. Open, as '97 Ryder Cup captain, staying current with Tiger at the 2004 Cup.COLOR PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERHALLMARKS Kite (clockwise from above) with mentor Harvey Penick in 1993, winning the '92 U.S. Open, as '97 Ryder Cup captain, staying current with Tiger at the 2004 Cup.COLOR PHOTOANDREW REDDINGTON/GETTY IMAGESHALLMARKS Kite (clockwise from above) with mentor Harvey Penick in 1993, winning the '92 U.S. Open, as '97 Ryder Cup captain, staying current with Tiger at the 2004 Cup.COLOR PHOTOAMY SANCETTA/APHALLMARKS Kite (clockwise from above) with mentor Harvey Penick in 1993, winning the '92 U.S. Open, as '97 Ryder Cup captain, staying current with Tiger at the 2004 Cup.COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by David Walberg EARLY BIRD Players with exemptions such as Kite's are stuck with the first tee times, meaning predawn warmups this time of year.