Tom Kite took most of the suspense out of the final round of the Tournament Players Championship Sunday at Sawgrass.
In the process, he altered his image as a conservative, play-it-safe pro who will win only if others falter.
There were 10 players within four shots of the lead at the outset of the final round, including some of golf’s most prominent names.
Yet Kite became the outright leader at the sixth hole and, although he won by only one shot, it wasn’t that close.
After Chip Beck, the third-round leader, made a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole, Kite routinely made his two-foot putt for a par.
Kite had a solid, one-under-par round of 71 for a four-day total of 279, nine under par. He earned $243,000 for his victory in the $1,350,000 tournament.
It was also his second straight Tour victory. He won the Nestle Invitational last week at Orlando, Fla., but in an entirely different manner. Kite and Davis Love III had double bogeys on the final hole, forcing a sudden-death playoff that Kite won on the second hole.
“I don’t know if any (victory) is more gratifying or satisfying than the others,” Kite said. “Certainly after winning the way I did last week and struggling a little bit, it’s sure nice to come back and play a good, solid round today.”
Beck, overcoming a bogey-ridden front nine of 41, had a 73 to earn the second-place prize of $145,800.
Bruce Lietzke was third at 281 with a final round of 72, and Greg Norman and Fred Couples finished at 282.
Mark McCumber, the defending champion and hometown favorite, had a 74 and was tied at 283 with Gil Morgan.
“That’s what you expect of Tom Kite, a real solid round,” Lietzke said. “Seven or eight years ago, I was asked to compare Norman and Kite. I said they were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
“Norman was the most aggressive player and Kite was the most conservative. But I’m eating my words. Tom is absolutely not the most conservative on the Tour.
“When Tom is on, he’ll go to the pin just as much as Lanny Watkins. When the chips are down, Tom has made as many aggressive shots as anybody.”
With the field failing to challenge him, Kite was cruising with a three-shot lead when he reached No. 14. However, he three putted and his lead was reduced to two.
He saved par at No. 15 with a five-foot putt and then had a fine drive on No. 16, a par five, 497-yard hole.
Instead of laying up with the lead, Kite pulled out a four wood, and his shot landed in the rough near the green. From there, he proceeded to get a par.
“I never thought about laying up,” Kite said. “I had a tournament to win.
“I feel I’m as aggressive a player as there is on the Tour. But when you’re only averaging 258 yards in driving distance, you’re not going to overpower a golf course.
“A player who hits the ball farther than I do will seem to be a lot more aggressive than I am but he may not be as aggressive. I’ve gone for a lot of par fives when I have the opportunity.
“I’ve never been a big believer that I’m a conservative player. But I may not look as aggressive as Greg Norman or some of the longer hitters.”
Kite, 39, who has been on the Tour since 1972, seemingly had his 12th career victory when he and Beck approached the 18th hole, a treacherous par four of 440 yards with water bordering the fairway.
Beck’s approach shot landed 20 feet from the pin, and Kite was 60 feet away on the two-tiered green.
Kite made a good lag putt and then wanted to finish it before Beck putted.
“I wanted to putt it out and get it over with, but that wouldn’t give Chip a chance to play,” Kite said. “So before he putted I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to make it, I’ve got to make it. He is going to make his and I’m going to make mine.’ ”
And that’s what happened.
The wind was gusting up to 25 miles an hour Sunday, but was to Kite’s liking. As a Texan, he’s used to windy conditions.
All the same, there were 49 sub-par scores Thursday, but only eight Sunday.
By winning, Kite moved to the top of the money-winning list this season with $561,723. His lifetime earnings are $4,767,136, behind Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, and he’s closing in on Watson.
He is also the second player to win consecutive tournaments this year, matching Steve Jones, who won the Tournament of Champions and the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
Kite earned a 10-year exemption on the Tour by winning, which is a benefit that he probably doesn’t need.
Although Kite’s credentials are respectable, he hasn’t won one of the four majors--the Masters, U.S. Open, PGA, or British Open.
“People will have a hard time convincing me that this isn’t a major,” Kite said.
The Players Championship isn’t considered such, but it has the Tour’s strongest field.
Kite plans to play in the USF & G Classic at New Orleans this week and then the Masters April 6-9. He said, with good reason, that he’s feeling confident.
Two consecutive tournament victories does that to a golfer.