HE'S A MAJOR-LEAGUER '92 win provides Kite higher level of respect

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- Tom Kite's second favorite four-letter word is "gosh." His first is "golf."

He has glasses so thick you'd think twice before letting him sit behind the wheel of a golf cart. And he wears a straw hat that is roughly the size of Texas.

Kite is to golf what Wonder bread is to cuisine: square yet dependable.

Others may smack longer drives or sink more spectacular putts, but Kite's strength has always been a consistency that borders on the boring.

He simply plays it straight, collects paychecks and wins.

Today, when the 93rd U.S. Open begins on the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club, the galleries will be in hot pursuit of the long hitters and famous names that dominate the tour.

Jack Nicklaus is back at the site where he won two of his four Opens. Bernhard Langer of Germany carries the Masters championship into the second major of the season.

And there are at least three dozen other top performers in the 156-player field who harbor realistic hopes of emerging with the championship.

But this tournament won't really begin today until precisely 2:10 p.m., when a starter calls out the name of the reigning U.S. Open champion:

Tom Kite Jr., of Austin, Texas.

Since winning the 1992 Open, Kite has reveled in the status that comes from claiming a major championship.

Golf's all-time-leading money winner finally stepped up in class on a windy day at Pebble Beach. He navigated his way through a treacherous final round to win a title and forever rid himself of the label: best golfer without a major triumph.

"When you haven't won a major, the tendency is to say that major championships are blown out of proportion, that there is way too much of an emphasis placed on them," Kite said. "You think, 'Maybe we ought to give people credit for being good players.' Then, you win one, and the perception that the public has is incredible."

Kite has simply enjoyed the past 12 months of his life.

"The year has just been incredible," he said.

That might be an understatement.

Kite opened 1993 as if he was ready to own the tour. He won twice in his first four starts and was playing, he said, "the best golf of my career." His 35-under-par total for 90 holes at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic set a PGA Tour record.

But then, he suffered two herniated disks in his lower back after taking an amusement park ride with his twin sons. Playing in pain, he missed the cut at the Masters.

That brought on a key decision. To operate or not to operate? Kite underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, Calif., chose therapy over fusion surgery, took a month off and rebuilt his game.

Almost from scratch.

"Don't ask me about my back," he said. "It's fine. Really."

Kite showed just how far he has come back when he was the runner-up two weeks ago at the Kemper. Last week at the Buick Open, Kite again played effectively, laying the groundwork for another Open run.

Very few Open winners in the past decade can say they actually had fun in the months after taking the title.

Scott Simpson has only won two tournaments since taking the 1987 Open title.

There might as well be an all-points bulletin out on Curtis Strange, who hasn't won since his back-to-back Open titles in 1988 and 1989.

And Payne Stewart is still in search of his first victory since beating Simpson in the 1991 Open playoff.

"You find yourself trying to do too much," Stewart said, explaining the post-Open blues. "You try to become a great golfer. And when you try like that, you fail."

Kite has taken a different approach. He didn't aim for greatness -- just consistency.

"I was not going to let the Open change me," he said. "And I've done a fairly decent job of that. I can assure you that the public and maybe some other players on the tour think of Tom Kite as a different player prior to what I was last June. But I'm not."

Kite's convictions remain as solid as his game.

He doesn't set goals. He doesn't make boasts. He simply plays.

"I'm dream-oriented," he said. "It's so easy to adjust goals all the time. Maybe you achieve them or maybe you set them too high. But dreams, you can set them as high as you want. There is no way as a little kid that you'll achieve all the dreams that you have. But you still have them."

Winning the Open was one dream of Kite's. Another one, he said, is defending his title.

He has held on to the Open trophy longer than most. When the U.S. Golf Association sent Kite a letter in April, asking for the winner's trophy back, Kite ignored the message.

"You're the Open champion for a year," he said. "They're not going to give that trophy away for a while yet."

With any luck, Kite will retrieve that trophy Sunday.

"When you get down to it, this is just a tournament," he said.

"It's not life or death. It's just golf."

U.S. OPEN

What: 93rd U.S. Open Golf Championship

Site: Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, N.J.

Format: 72 holes, stroke play

Schedule: Today through Sunday

Cut: After 36 holes, the field will be cut to the low 60 scorers and any tying for 60th place, and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead.

Playoff: In the event of a tie after 72 holes, an 18-hole playoff will be held Monday.

Par: 34-3670

Yardage: 7,084 to 7,152

Starters: 156 players

Prize: $1.6 million, with $290,000 to the winner if he is a professional

Course record: 63 (Tom Weiskopf and Jack Nicklaus), first round, 1980 U.S. Open

KITE AT THE OPEN

Year .. .. Place .. .. Score

1970 .. .. cut . .. .. 158

1972 .. .. t-19 ... .. 302

1974 .. .. t-8 . .. .. 293

1975 .. .. cut . .. .. 155

1976 .. .. cut . .. .. 154

1977 .. .. t-27 ... .. 290

1978 .. .. t-20 ... .. 293

1979 .. .. cut . .. .. 154

1980 .. .. cut . .. .. 151

1981 .. .. t-20 ... .. 284

1982 .. .. . 29 ... .. 293

1983 .. .. t-20 ... .. 294

1984 .. .. cut . .. .. 152

1985 .. ... 13 . .. .. 284

1986 .. .. t-35 ... .. 291

1987 .. .. t-46 ... .. 291

1988 .. .. t-36 ... .. 289

1989 .. .. t-9 . .. .. 283

1990 .. .. t-56 ... .. 293

1991 .. .. t-37 ... .. 295

1992 .. .. .. 1 ... .. 285

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