POTOMAC -- Grant Waite learned a lot from playing with Tom Kite during the last two rounds of the $1.3 million Kemper Open. He learned how to maneuver his ball around the deceptively difficult TPC course at Avenel. He learned how to keep his bubbling emotions from spilling over.
And, most significantly, he learned how to win.
With Kite playing the role of tour guide and teacher, Waite overcame an early one-shot deficit to golf's all-time money-winner as well as loads of potential disaster to win his first tournament in his second try at the PGA Tour.
An adventurous 1-under-par 70 gave the 28-year-old from New Zealand a four-round score of 9-under-par 275 and a one-shot victory over Kite, who could never get things going in a final-round 72. Scott Hoch and rookie Michael Bradley each shot 68 to finish tied for third at 7-under.
"Before the tournament started, I really thought I could win," said Waite, who lost his tour card after a disappointing rookie year in 1990 and requalified for the tour last fall. "Not that I was thinking on Thursday that I was going to win this tournament. You always think you can. But there's a big difference thinking you can and knowing you can."
Waite now knows. The victory was worth $234,000 to Waite, boosting his career earnings to $368,689 and boosting him from 91st to 19th on this year's money list, as well as an invitation to next year's Masters and a two-year exemption from qualifying for tour events. It was a round fraught with danger, but one filled with great escapes.
After seeing a two-stroke lead disappear with bogeys at 14 and 15, after regaining the lead with a miraculous 40-foot birdie at the par-5 16th, Waite teetered for the final time after hitting a fat 7-iron approach into a greenside bunker at the par-4 18th.
"I really started talking to myself," said Waite, who had several such conversations yesterday. "I said, 'It's just one bunker shot that I've hit hundreds of times.' I hit probably the best bunker shot of my life."
The ball, which started in the sand 90 feet from the cup, ended up less than two feet away. Kite had to make a 20-foot birdie putt to force a playoff. But as happened throughout what turned into a frustrating afternoon for the defending U.S. Open champion and former Kemper Open champion, Kite narrowly missed. Waite tapped in for par -- and victory.
"Grant played very well," an obviously deflated Kite said. "He scrambled very well. I don't think he would claim it was a real good round from tee to green. He made some putts. He got out of some difficult bunkers. It was a solid round of golf."
Said Waite: "I didn't go out there and play picture-perfect golf. When I got myself in trouble, I usually came back with a good shot. Tom's had a whole career of making putts and chips under those conditions. I played a round that was one shot good enough."
Though many looked back at what happened Saturday as the difference between victory and defeat -- Waite was saved from a possible two-stroke penalty when Kite reminded him that his left foot was in a ground-under-repair area near the fourth green -- neither player thought it mattered much.
"I don't think Tom thought that's an issue, and I don't," Waite said. "It shows he's a class act and a great sportsman." Asked what he thought about it after losing by one shot, Kite said, "The same thing that I did [Saturday]. No thoughts."
The difference yesterday was around the green. Aside from his bunker shot at 18, Waite saved par from the sand at Nos. 7 and 9, where he also made a nasty, downhill five-foot putt. He made a putt to save par at No. 12 from a similar distance.
Kite, meanwhile, couldn't make a putt all afternoon. Except for a winding 50-footer at No. 12 that pulled him to one shot of the lead, Kite couldn't get putts to fall. The final putt sort of summed up his day: close, but a couple of inches wide.
There were two notable exceptions. The first came at the par-5 fifth hole, when Kite was distracted by a clicking camera behind the green and jerked a two-footer. Then, after Waite made his final birdie at 16, Kite badly pushed a 10-foot try for birdie to pull even again.
Through it all, Waite kept his composure. The toughest part came when he built his two-shot lead -- "I didn't know what to do," he said -- and then when his emotions started taking over on the back nine. It led to his only poor decision of the round, when he hit a driver off the 14th tee instead of the 2-iron suggested by his caddie.
"You've got to spend all day keeping under control," he said. "It's just an incredible challenge."
With the victory, Waite will now have another challenge: proving yesterday, and the rest of the week at Avenel, where he led after the first and second rounds, wasn't a fluke and he is not merely a one-time wonder.
The experience he had playing a variety of foreign tours helped him get back on the tour. One tournament in particular helped him here: after leading the first two days and starting the final round one shot behind at a $5 million event last year in Australia, Waite blew up with an 80.
"I lost it after I duck-hooked my first drive into the water and double-bogeyed," he recalled.
Now, Waite hopes, winning the Kemper Open will put him on another level. What the past two days proved to Waite was simple: in head-to-head competition against one of the game's most accomplished players, he could more than hold his own.
"I learned a lot from Tom," Waite said. About sportsmanship. About emotions. And, most significantly, about winning.