Kite Ends All the Major Doubts : U.S. Open: While most falter in the wind at Pebble Beach, he stays steady and beats Sluman by two shots.
Tom Kite has been labeled as the finest player never to have won a major tournament.
He is the the all-time leading money winner with more than $7 million in earnings.
Yet, there has always been an question mark when Kite has been compared with other distinguished players--his inability to win a major championship.
Kite, 42, reached another level Sunday on a sunny, windy day on the Monterey Peninsula when he won the 92nd U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
He shot a par 72, with a 72-hole score of 285, three under par. He beat Jeff Sluman (who shot 71 on Sunday) by two strokes and Britain’s Colin Montgomerie (70) by three.
No longer will people say that Kite is a fine player, but. . . .
He won in gutsy fashion while others fell by the wayside because of the difficulty caused by the capricious wind and rock-hard greens.
“It’s hard to describe my emotions,” Kite said. “It has been a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid pretending I was putting to win the U.S. Open or Masters.”
Kite earned $275,000 and also added stature to an already exemplary career.
No longer will he have to endure questions as to why he has never won a major tournament: the U.S. Open, Masters, British Open and PGA Championship.
“It was bugging the living daylights out of me,” Kite said. “I really feel good about Tom Kite and his career and everything going for me, but the only thing most people wanted to talk about was, ‘You’ve done all those other things, how come you’ve never won a major?’ ”
Kite has had his share of disappointments in major championships.
“I’ve let some slip away and some were taken away,” he said.
He had the lead in the Masters in the final round in 1984 only to lose to Ben Crenshaw. Then, he had a four-stroke lead early in the final round of the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., only to falter as Curtis Strange won.
Kite said the experience at Oak Hill was the most disappointing in his career.
“It was my tournament to win, or lose and I lost it,” he said.
Kite began the final round one stroke behind Gil Morgan and tied with Mark Brooks and Ian Woosnam.
The pressure of the U.S. Open and the windy weather took its toll on most of the leaders.
Morgan, who led the first three rounds, staggered to an 81. Woosnam had a 79, while Brooks, playing with Kite, had a horrendous 84. It was that kind of a day.
After the first nine holes, Kite was the only player under par for the tournament. He improved to four under at the 12th hole, then made another birdie at the 14th hole before getting bogeys at the 16th and 17 holes.
Sluman had finished, so it was Kite’s tournament to win or lose when he came to the 18th tee with a two-shot lead.
“If I was the owner of a pro team and my coach played a prevent defense I’d fire him,” Kite said. “I was aggressive at the 14th hole, but then I went into a prevent defense at 16 and 17. But that forced me to make a golf swing at the 18th.”
The 18th hole, a par-five of 548 yards, borders the ocean. It is one of the most picturesque finishing holes in the world, and it can be treacherous.
Kite hit his tee shot down the right side of the fairway, then hit a five-iron to position himself for a wedge shot to the green. It landed about 20 feet from the pin.
Kite could have three-putted and won. But he putted to within a few inches of the cup and easily got his par and the Open championship.
It seemed at one juncture of the final round that even par for 72 holes would be good enough to win.
Montgomerie teed off at 10:22 a.m. in 28th position and finished his round early in the afternoon. Jack Nicklaus, doing commentary on television, congratulated Montgomerie prematurely for winning the Open, even though Kite and others were still on the course.
At that moment, Kite made what was probably his most significant shot of the day. After his tee shot on the par-three, 107-yard seventh hole found the rough, he hit a 20-yard flop shot over a bunker that hit the flag stick and then fell into the cup for a birdie.
He was asked if that shot recalled Tom Watson’s famous shot from the rough on the 17th hole for a birdie to win the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
“My immediate thought was, ‘Yeah, here we go. Tom Watson did it,’ ” Kite said. “Yet the conditions were different. He had one hole to go, and and I had the entire golf course.
“I promise you I was almost in shock when the ball went in. My initial thought was to jump around and run all over the green, but I was trying to quit thinking about the future and get back into the present tense.”
Kite was playing in his 21st Open. He had been disappointed in the past, especially in 1989 when when he shot a 78 in the final round.
“It was difficult to keep negative thoughts from popping into my head,” Kite said. “It’s easy to get racing ahead or thinking about what could happen, or what might happen, or what did happen a few years ago.”
It was the 17th victory of Kite’s career.
Kite has always been known as a steady player without any glaring weaknesses. He is usually in contention.
He had to be steady Saturday as the wind from the Pacific Ocean turned some of the world’s best players into Sunday hackers.
“The greens were turning blue out there today. They really were,” Kite said. “They were very, very scary.”
So now Kite won’t have to answer any more questions as to how he feels about not winning a major. “Yes, the majors are important,” he said. “But there are some people who have won major championships, even some who have won multiple major championships, that I wouldn’t trade careers with for anything.”
Then, he paused and added, “Certainly not now.”
* FUTILE WAIT: Colin Montgomerie could only watch his chances to win slip away. C10