Kite soars into World Golf Hall of Fame
Tom Kite was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday and instead of old Ryder Cup bags and memorabilia his shrine should have included a hard hat, lunch pail and a pair of work gloves.
We marvel at the work ethic of Vijay Singh, but this Hogan disciple would give the Fijian two a side when it comes to digging it out of the dirt. The first to adopt the concept of a third wedge in competition, he won 19 times on such demanding tracks as Riviera, Butler National, Doral, Bay Hill, Harbour Town, the TPC-Sawgrass and of course, Pebble Beach, in the 1992 U.S. Open. That Sunday on the Monterey Peninsula was arguably the most brutal day in major championship history, yet Kite found a way to tack around the trouble and raise the trophy.
The ruddy complexion and the leathery neck are tell tale signs of a man who spent too much time in the sun, but the fruits of his labor is a legacy as one of golf's all-time great overachievers. Asked on "PGA Tour Sunday" what percentage of it was hard work and what percentage was talent, Kite responded by asking some rhetorical questions of his own. "People who are trying to be the best don't care whether it's talent or hard work," he said. "And you can't define talent ... is it on the inside or the outside? Is it physical, emotional, or is it brains? I think if you want to play at a high level, then you have to put your time in. From the time I was 12 years old, I was out there hitting balls and practicing."
The image I have of Kite occurred five summers ago on one of those brutally hot days in Baltimore when the clothes mat up and stick to you like wet wallpaper. In the Mid-Atlantic States they call it the three Hs -- hazy, hot and humid. I was invited to play in the Caves Valley Invitational and Tom Kite was there, beating balls. We played a series of three nine-hole matches and the club has a policy against shorts. I remember commenting that this was what Ken Venturi felt like at Congressional in 1964. At one point I bent over to hit a putt and the sweat was pouring off my hat, onto my ball. If I stood over it long enough, I could have taken relief for casual water. Yet every time we made the turn there was Kite, on the range, a man at work.
Kite missed the cut at Westchester and drove down to Caves where he could grind in solitude. Dennis Satyshur, the head pro, was one of Tom's best friends coming out of college and on the mini-tours in Tampa. Tom, you may remember, asked Dennis to serve as an assistant during the 1997 Ryder Cup. I called Dennis on Tuesday to see what he remembered about Kite that day. He was in the Jacksonville airport, flying home from Tom's induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
"Tom's always in training," Satyshur said when asked to explain the work ethic that has defined Kite's career. "He's very good at finding short-term goals, things that keep him going and excited in what he's doing."
Tom was 49 at the time, in the supposed twilight of his career, yet the missed cut was inexcusable. He refused to accept the notion that a man his age should be expected to miss cuts. Five years later, not much has changed. Kite confirmed last week that he will use his exemption as one of the top-50 all-time career money winners to turn back the clock and concentrate on the regular tour. His first event of 2005 will be the Sony Open in Hawaii. He will pick venues that suit his game.
"You have to be excited to wake up in the morning," Kite said. "You need to do something that makes you pumped up about life. I love playing and competing at the highest level." When it comes to results, the highlight of Kite's year was bouncing back from a crushing final-round giveaway in the U.S. Senior Open to win the following week. But when it comes to a source of pride, Kite talks first about going through U.S. Open qualifying, and making the cut at Shinnecock.
The idea to play the regular tour came through a conversation with Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist. Kite is one of those competitors who turned 50 and had a hard time getting motivated for the Champions Tour. The been there, done that mentality is a syndrome that Raymond Floyd, Tom Watson and Lanny Wadkins all experienced after turning 50. They didn't need to play for the money, so what was the motivation? In his first five years of competition on the senior circuit, Kite has only won seven times, including this year's 3M Championship, which was his first victory since 2002.
"The Claw" putting grip has given Kite new life and physically he looks better now than in 1981, when he recorded 21 top-10 finishes and won his first of two money titles and Vardon Trophies. He has been working with a strength coach from the University of Texas and length is no longer an issue. In plotting out his schedule, he asked me what I thought about the Fazio Course at Mirasol, where they play the Honda Classic. I told him it was 7,400 yards but it didn't play that long. He scoffed at the reference, sort of the way he did in 2002 when I congratulated him on making his fifth-straight cut at The Players. Even at 52, he was supposed to make the cut at The Players.
Part of what drove Kite as a boy was being the understudy to Ben Crenshaw. Harvey Penick used to tell the naturally gifted Crenshaw to practice on the golf course. With Kite, Penick would point toward the range. It was fitting that some 42 years later Crenshaw would be Kite's presenter in St. Augustine and that they could laugh about the old days.
"Every part of his game works together," Crenshaw said. "That's what he's made his life work to be. There haven't been too many people to outwork Tom Kite."
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