POTOMAC -- When Tom Kite tapped in a three-foot birdie putt on the par-3 ninth hole yesterday, just about everybody at Avenel figured that the $1.3 million Kemper Open was all but over and his comeback from a serious injury nearly complete.
Kite was 11-under par, having played the front nine in 4-under par. He was four shots ahead of Grant Waite, the first- and second-round leader, and six ahead of anybody else. He was seemingly in control, conquering both the competition and the 7,005-yard course.
"I was trying to pour it on," Kite said. "I was trying to distance myself from the field."
Instead of continuing to run away, Kite came back to the field. Instead of leading by four shots, or more, Kite is one ahead of Waite and four ahead of Jay Delsing, John Inman, Steve Lamontagne and Lee Janzen going into today's final round.
A double-bogey on the par-4 12th hole, when Kite put his first shot in heavy rough and his second in a creek, stopped him cold. An unlucky break on the par-5 13th, when his approach hit the flag stick and ricocheted 20 feet from the cup, prevented Kite from making another move. And a birdie by Waite at 18 made things interesting again.
"There's still a lot of golf to play," Kite said after finishing with a 2- under-par 69 for a three-round total of 9-under-par 204. "An awful lot of guys have a pretty good chance."
It was more Avenel's doing as it was Kite's undoing. A course that has taken its share of criticism since opening in 1987 is suddenly getting some respect. On a day when scoring conditions were nearly perfect, nobody could manage better than 3-under par 68.
"The golf course is far better than its reputation," said Kite, who won here by seven shots in 1987 and lost in a playoff to Morris Hatalsky the following year. "I think this golf course is better than a lot of courses that are considered real nice."
Sort of the reputation Kite had -- or didn't have -- until he won his first major at last year's U.S. Open. It almost was a negative that Kite, golf's all-time money-winner and No. 4 on the money list this season, was considered the best player never to have won a major until his victory at Pebble Beach.
One of the things Kite has been called for a long time is a good ambassador for his sport. If not for his sportsmanship yesterday, he would have had an even larger lead. After Waite nearly chipped from an area near the fourth green that was under repair (though he had moved his ball out of the area, his left foot was clearly inside the line), Kite reminded the 28-year-old from New Zealand of his potential mistake.
"We don't need any penalties, that's for sure," Kite said to Waite.
They were tied for the lead at 8-under, after Waite had duck-hooked his drive and bogeyed the par-4 first hole and Kite had birdied No. 2, a 622-yard par-5, after putting his approach three feet from the cut. Waite would then skull his chip at No. 4 over the green and fell out of the lead with a bogey.
But it could have been worse.
"Tom didn't have to do that," Waite said after his round of 1-over 72. "It shows you what a class act the guy is. That was a tribute to Tom. He is a great champion aside from hitting a golf ball."
Kite said: "He was about to break the rules. It would have been pretty chicken for me to see a guy break a rule and say, 'By the way, add two.' That's not golf. That's other sports where people try to get away with as much as they can."
It didn't seem to matter when Kite began to stretch his lead. It went to two shots after an 8-foot birdie at the par-4 fifth hole, three shots after a 10-foot birdie at the 453-yard par-4 eighth hole and four shots after Kite hit a 9-iron to within three feet at No. 9.
"It's always great to get that shot over with," Kite said of the shot from the sharply elevated tee to the sloping green. "It's a scary little hole."
Kite's string of birdies had made some of those still in contention press a little -- or a lot. Janzen, who was at 4-under and staring at an 8-footer for birdie at No. 13, said he choked a bit on the putt after seeing Kite go to 11-under.
"I knew I had to make birdies," said Janzen, who made one at 16 and finished in the group at 5-under after a 1-under-par 70.
After missing two 10-foot birdie putts at Nos. 10 and 11, Kite made "my only terrible swing of the day." He blocked out his tee shot into the far right rough at No. 12, then tried to strong-arm a 4-iron over a ditch 100 yards in front of the green. He hit it fat, and into the water, then missed a 20-footer for bogey.
Kite seemingly had a chance to get a stroke back when he hit a perfect approach from 107 yards at No. 13. In fact, he hit it a little too perfect, with the ball catching the flagstick square. "Can't shoot at those things," Kite said, jokingly. "They make 'em too hard."
Though his lead is only one, Kite is clearly the player to beat for the $234,000 first-place check. Of the 13 players within six shots of the lead, only Janzen has won a tournament this year. Kite won back-to-back events earlier this year -- he is shooting for his 20th career title -- before taking more than a month off because of two herniated disks.
"He's in command," Janzen said of Kite.
"It's his tournament. If he goes out and shoots a good score, he'll be hard to catch."
Kite said: "I'm not playing quite as well as I was earlier this year, but it's close. I feel good about my chances, and about my ability to handle the situation. I want to be in the last group Sunday [today]. I want to be nervous. I want to be excited."
NOTES: Play was suspended for 17 minutes yesterday after lightning flashed across a mostly sunny sky. . . . The two PGA Tour pros with local ties, former Frederick resident Donnie Hammond and former Maryland coach Fred Funk, each shot 73. They are well back in the pack.
The leader . . .
Tom Kite 70-65-69--204
. . . and selected followers
Grant Waite 66-67-72--205
Jay Delsing 69-71-68--208
John Inman 71-68-69--208
Lee Janzen 71-67-70--208
S. Lamontagne 69-68-71--208
Howard Twitty 70-71-72--213
Curtis Strange 71-70-73--214
D. Hammond 70-72-73--215
M. Calcavecchia 73-69-74--216
Ian Baker-Finch 73-71-73--217
Fred Funk 71-73-73--217
Complete scores: 14D