Golf's Tournament of Champions : Kite Soars Away From Field--64

Times Staff Writer

Thirty-six pros, nine of them seniors, played the La Costa Country Club golf course in the first round of the MONY Tournament of Champions here Thursday. One of those pros was Tom Kite, although it appeared that he was playing a different game on an easier course, say a pitch-and-putt.

Although some of the 35 others had modest success on the long course--it's 6,911 yards--on a sparkling, cool day, Kite unaccountably shot a 64, eight under par, tying the tournament and course records.

Kite beat Bernhard Langer by 12 shots, Tom Watson by 11, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino by 10 and Fuzzy Zoeller, the second-best golfer in the first round, by 4.

Nobody was more surprised at this turn of events than Kite. Probably the most consistent good player on the pro tour the last few years, he had not been playing well lately.

Three weeks ago, in fact, he missed the cut at the Masters, shooting 75-79. Unfamiliar as he was with slumps, he said his embarrassing play in the Masters was a big shock to him.

"I've sort of been like a baby trying to crawl," he said Thursday. "I was going along finishing 25th, 30th or 40th, but I thought maybe it was something little-bitty and I could turn it around."

The flaw turned out to be something major, however. "Finally," he said, "I had to get away from the tour and regroup."

Skipping the tournament at Houston last week, he went to Florida to have his teaching pro, Peter Kostis, take a look at his swing.

The flaw?

"I had been picking my club up too quickly."

The result?

"I hit the ball too high in the air and not very far."

The cure?

"More extension in my swing."

Thursday, Kite again played the game in the manner to which he had become accustomed. He made nine birdies and shot his only bogey on the last hole when he hit into two bunkers.

Zoeller, the other half of the twosome, was impressed by Kite's play. "I've seen two fires here this week," he said. "The 64 Tom shot today and the fire the welder started Wednesday (when some buildings burned next to the course)."

Zoeller had to play well to keep from being embarrassed by Kite. "I think his round gave me a boost," Zoeller said. "The way he was putting, it definitely opened up the hole for me. I said, 'What the hell, if he can make it, I can, too.' "

Kite needed only 25 putts and had 10 one-putt greens. His birdie putts included one from 30 feet and another from 25. Remarkably, he had nine 3s on his card.

As sharp as his putting was, however, it didn't account for the way Kite scored.

"I've been shooting 73s and 74s with 25 putts," he said. The difference Thursday was, I hit a lot more greens."

He didn't hit the first one, however, knocking an 8-iron shot into a bunker.

But he hit his third shot 18 inches from the hole and saved his par. "It was a nice way to start the day," he said.

He missed breaking the La Costa record when he hit his tee shot into a bunker at No. 18, then half-topped a 4-iron shot into another one next to the green.

Four players, Greg Norman, Wayne Levi, Mark McCumber and Lanny Wadkins, shot 69s, and 13 of the regular-tour pros broke par, 72.

Only six of the younger players beat Peter Thomson of Australia, who shot a 70 to lead the seniors. Arnold Palmer and Dan Sikes had 72s.

While Kite was taking 25 putts, Palmer was taking 35. He had 20 on the first nine holes. "I've always had trouble with the greens here," he said. "I don't know why. There's really no reason."

But his putting didn't embarrass Palmer as much as having to hit from the front tees on some holes. The policy board of the seniors' tour voted to give the old pros an advantage and Palmer didn't like it. It really wasn't much of an edge, only about 170 yards, in fact.

"I disapprove wholeheartedly," Palmer said. "I see no reason for it. It's nonsensical. I'm embarrassed. I'll wear my dress tomorrow."

He has no idea what to do about his putting, however. "I've gone through about 4,000 putters," he said. "Now I'm going to try 4,000 different strokes."

The difference in yardage didn't bother Thomson. "That's where (shorter tees) we play every week," he said.

Said Roberto de Vicenzo, another old pro: "It bothers me, but only because it's not so much of an advantage. We can't hit the ball so long anymore."

Thomson was pleasantly surprised by the way he played Thursday. "I don't expect anything, so I'm never disappointed," he said. "For instance, here I'm trying to make the top 10." There are only nine seniors competing.

Calvin Peete, assured going in of winning at least $4,900 in prize money even if he finished last, was disqualified when he did not turn in a score for the fifth hole. The PGA will decide today if Peete qualifies for a share of the $400,000 purse.

According to PGA official Glenn Tait, Peete did not know what score he shot on the hole. Neither did the scorer accompanying Peete and the other member of the twosome, Curtis Strange. When Tait asked Strange what Peete's score was, the player replied, "I don't know."

Apparently, Peete took some swipes at his ball on the green and hit it while it was moving. That's illegal.

When asked by Tait what he shot on the hole, Peete first replied, "It was a 9. No, I hit it while it was moving, so that made it an 11. No, it was a 13." Then he told the PGA official, "I really don't know."

Said Tait: "I had no choice. I had to disqualify him. He didn't grumble. He took it like a man."

Senior Lee Elder, who shot a 74, also had putting problems. He came into the locker room after his round, carrying a broken putter and saying, "I broke this S.O.B. so I'll never have to pick it up again."

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