Waite leads Kite by two in Kemper Golf's money leader begins his ascent

POTOMAC — POTOMAC -- Grant Waite has been the leader of the $1.3 million Kemper Open after each of the first two rounds at Avenel. He also has been something else: an afterthought.

First, it was John Daly's unsigned score card and subsequent disqualification Thursday that overshadowed Waite's opening round of 5-under-par 66, which had given him a one-shot lead.


Then it was Tom Kite's charge yesterday that put the defending U.S. Open champion and former Kemper winner back in the hunt -- and forced the 28-year-old from New Zealand out of the spotlight again.

After leading by as many as four shots after a second-round 67 for a 36-hole total of 9-under 133, Waite saw his comfortable lead chopped in half by Kite, who shot a 6-under 65. Waite leads four other fairly obscure players -- Steve LaMontagne, Jeff Maggert, David Ogrin and Tommy Armour III -- by four shots.


"If there are other guys just like me trying to win [for the first time], it's going to be more difficult for us than it would be for a guy like Tom Kite, who has won everything in sight," Waite said at about the time Kite was teeing off. "We're all in the same boat. We're all in the same uncharted waters."

Others who have won before are in contention -- Armour won once, in 1990, and former Kemper champion Morris Hatalsky is five shots behind -- but Kite is by far the most accomplished player with a legitimate chance. Then again, he is golf's all-time money winner, with more than $8 million in earnings.

In the midst of a comeback from a back injury that sidelined him for more than a month after the Masters, Kite started to feel his game coming around last week at the Byron Nelson Classic. Though he missed the cut, his second-round 69 was an encouraging sign to the 43-year-old Texan.

With his defense at the Open less than a month away, Kite hopes to use this week's tournament as a springboard for Baltusrol. Though not where he was earlier this year, when he began the season with two victories and a second in his first four events, Kite said he is getting close.

"I want to win the golf tournament. If I didn't, I wouldn't be playing," said Kite, whose bogeyless round could have even been better had he not missed a 3-footer for birdie at No. 1, after playing the back nine in 4-under. "I don't know if getting in the hunt here will help me at Baltusrol."

Kite has become a familiar figure here -- he won Avenel's inaugural Kemper in 1987 and lost in a playoff to Hatalsky the following year -- but Waite is one of those relative unknowns who seems to pop up at the Kemper Open every year.

Waite learned to play golf because he lived next door to a course in Palmerston, a city of about 80,000 on New Zealand's North Island. His back-to-back victories in the Australian Junior Open brought interest from the University of Oklahoma.

Or from someone he thought was pretending to be the coach at Oklahoma. "I got a call one morning at around 6 o'clock, and the guy said,'Hi, I'm David Yates from the University of Oklahoma,' " said Waite, doing a fair imitation of a Oklahoma twang. "I said, 'And I'm Father Christmas.' I thought it was one of my friends pulling a prank, so I hung up."


Yates called back and told Waite that he was going to send him some brochures and scholarship information. Waite didn't believe him until a package arrived a couple of weeks later. He signed with the Sooners and took off for Norman, where he was a three-time All-American.

Asked about his first impression of the United States, Waite said: "I didn't know the difference between Oklahoma and anywhere else. Oklahoma was a little different than I thought it would be. I always thought the U.S. was very progressive, forward-thinking, on the cutting edge of everything. Oklahoma certainly shattered that myth."

Waite turned pro in 1987, and got his tour card for the first time in 1989. Except for a sixth-place tie in the 1990 Hawaiian Open, his rookie year was a struggle. After earning only $50,076 and finishing 177th on the money list, Waite lost his card and spent the past two years playing a number of foreign tours.

He won three tournaments last year, including the New Zealand Open. Though he carried the weight of his country on his shoulders, the pressure doesn't come close to what he has found on the PGA Tour, even at the noticeably low-profile Kemper.

"Everything is a little bit more up scale," said Waite, who has a pair of top 10 finishes this year and is 91st on the money list. "Everything you do on the tour is an experience. You either take it with you or let it go. I'm trying to take the best with me, but sometimes you get frustrated."

What will be a new experience for Waite today -- playing in the final group -- will be old hat for Kite. Certainly the folks at CBS will be rooting for Kite to add a few more dollars to win his 20th PGA tournament. Kite says he will be the crowd favorite, but he is not discounting either Waite or any of the others.


"I don't think there is a favorite," he said. "I have to go out there and play golf. Those guys haven't won, but they're not going to roll out and play dead. Sooner or later, those guys are going to win their first golf tournament. It's up to me to see that they don't this week."

* After shooting a 2-over-par 73 for a two-round total of 2-over 144, Fred Funk thought he was going to miss the cut. But the former Maryland golf coach fell right on the cutoff. "I'm under a self-imposed pressure," said Funk. "I want to play well in front of the hometown folks.