Tom Kite plays by rules and wins


SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- As Charles Barkley was saying, there is life beyond basketball.

Though he and Michael Jordan might just as soon be at Baltusrol when the U.S. Open begins Thursday, feel free to assume that the golfers will be gabbing about the NBA Finals in the locker room, on the practice tee, perhaps even between shots of the season's second major tournament.

That's athletes for you. Fred Couples wants to be George Brett. George Brett wants to be Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan wants to be Fred Couples. They're all having a ball, but one ball is never enough. At these prices, man can afford to eat, drink and be merry enough to imagine being someone else.

There's another crossover worth mentioning in this time of seasonal overlap. Like the Bulls, the defending champion of the U.S. Open has the right stuff, too. Everybody knows it was only fitting and proper that Tom Kite won this revered title a year ago in howling winds at Pebble Beach, Calif.

It's fairly common knowledge, too, that Kite since has struggled with an insidious back ailment. Rolling out of bed every morning is an adventure, and bed is where he should have stayed during the Masters. He missed the cut at Augusta National, a course he adores.

But herniated discs cannot destroy a person's fiber, and there was Kite a month ago, contending for the Kemper Open. He was paired during the third round with Grant Waite, a 28-year-old New Zealander who was winless on the PGA Tour. Certainly, he could have been intimidated by the presence of Kite, golf's all-time wage earner and a meticulous grinder who saves the jokes for later.

What Waite came to realize was that he walked with a sportsman. Waite, preparing to chip toward the fourth green, assumed a stance with his left heel over a white line designating ground under repair. Waite was one swing away from a terrible fate when he heard the voice of experience. Whoa, interrupted Kite.

"We don't need any penalties," he said. "It would be pretty chicken for me to see a guy break a rule and then say, 'By the way, add two shots.' That's other sports, where guys are trying to get every advantage they can. Golf's better. We might not be a better spectator sport than others. But in golf, you're the judge. You're the official."

Waite, caught just in time, jumped away from the ball as though it were a grenade. He then resumed play, playing by the rules he almost unwittingly skirted. Waite went on to win the Kemper Open. By one stroke. Over Kite.

"Class," Waite said. "What a class act that was by a great champion -- aside from when he's hitting the ball."

Waite probably would have mentioned the incident, but Kite wanted to treat it like just another day at the office. His wish was overturned because one reporter, Len Shapiro of the Washington Post, witnessed the gesture.

Kite thus was forced to talk about it, just as he did 15 summers ago, when he wasn't rolling in dough. He had won only one tournament since turning pro in 1972, but was vying for the lead at the Hall of Fame Classic in Pinehurst, N.C.

"I was two or three shots back of Tom Watson," recalled Kite. "I was about to tap in a short putt, maybe about a foot. I set the club down, and the ball moved. Only one thing you can do in a case like that."

Kite informed playing partner Howard Twitty that he had called an infraction on himself. Nary a soul on the scene saw the ball move except Kite. He took a bogey on the hole instead of par. He finished one stroke behind winner Watson. Kite received the Bobby Jones Award for that, and all the attendant favorable publicity.

Someone mentioned to him how cruel golf is, how unfair.

"Let me tell you something," Kite responded. "A week after that happened, I won the B.C. Open. Everything I've got, I owe to golf. It might not always be as exciting as some of the other sports, but it's the best."

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