When Tom Kite arrived at Pebble Beach for the 1992 U.S. Open, something was missing. Yes, he was missing a major title from his sterling resume, but he planned to make amends for that on a course where he had won before and held the course record. What he hadn’t planned was to forget his trusty lob wedge at home.
Never fear, Kite called up his father who delivered the club in person. It would come in handy. On Sunday, the 42-year-old Kite was standing in the deep rough some 20 yards off the seventh green, fighting to stand straight in the 40-mile-an-hour seaside wind. He grabbed the lob wedge, cleared the yawning bunker with a low arcing pitch, and watched the ball speed across the green, crash into the flagstick and drop into the hole for an improbable birdie.
"I guess if you can only win one major championship, it would be the U.S. Open, and if you had to pick a golf course to win it, Pebble Beach is not a bad place to have it."
Kite clapped his hands, clenched his fist and a broad smile broke out across his freckled face. Kite survived the brutal conditions – he was one of only five players to shoot par or better that day – for the crowning achievement of his career. “I guess if you can only win one major championship, it would be the U.S. Open,” Kite said. “And if you had to pick a golf course to win it, Pebble Beach is not a bad place to have it.”
Kite was born Dec. 9, 1949, in McKinney, Tex. He started playing golf at age six by following his father around and won his first tournament at 11. When the family moved to Austin, he began taking lessons from Hall of Fame instructor Harvey Penick, who charged him $3.50 for his first lesson and then never charged him again. While other boys grew up dreaming of being baseball sluggers or firemen, Kite knew he wanted to be a PGA TOUR pro.
“There was nothing in my life at that time I liked more than golf,” he said. “Nothing was even a close substitute.” His father warned him he faced an uphill battle. “Tom, for every 100 men who try the TOUR, 99 will fail,” his father said.
“Dad, I sure feel sorry for those other 99, because I intend to make it,” Tom said. In his mind, playing on the TOUR wasn’t a dream; it was a commitment. Kite was a winner at every level. He guided the University of Texas to consecutive NCAA Championships in 1971 and 1972, and shared the 1972 individual title with his teammate Ben Crenshaw. He joined the PGA TOUR full-time in 1973 and won his first of 19 events in 1976.
Tom Kite was the PGA TOUR’s Rookie of the Year in 1973, when he earned $54,270.
At, 5-8, 155 pounds, Kite didn’t drive it as long as Greg Norman. He lacked the silky smooth putting stroke of Ben Crenshaw. But his wedge game had no equal. Kite was the first player to carry a third wedge in his bag, which allowed him to be more precise with his distance control.
He was Mr. Consistency. From 1981 to 1987, Kite was the only man to win a PGA TOUR event every year. In 1981, he recorded 21 top-10 finishes in 26 starts, won the Vardon Trophy for scoring average, and led the money list. In 1989, he won three times, including THE PLAYERS Championship and was named PGA of America Player of the Year. He was a workaholic.
When Bruce Lietzke was asked to name Kite’s closest friend on Tour, he quipped, “His practice bag.”
“Spending time on the practice tee,” Kite said, “is no more laborious than shooting baskets all afternoon is for some 8-year-old kid.” All the hours of practice paid off coincidentally on Father’s Day in 1992 when he won the U.S. Open. Thanks to an assist by his dad, a special club, and one unforgettable shot.