Golf / The Open Championship 1992: Kite the nearly man no longer: John Hopkins talks to the new US Open champion who now has his sights set on a second successive Major

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TOM KITE had been the 92nd US Open champion for less than 48 hours. He had attended the United States Golf Association's celebratory dinner in Pebble Beach, flown to a company day in St Louis and now he was at the Buick Classic in Westchester. If this is Tuesday it must be New York.

Meanwhile, the congratulations were flooding in to his home in Austin, Texas - a charming letter from Ben Crenshaw, flowers from Greg Norman. Harvey Penick, the 87-year-old former golf professional at the Austin Country Club who had taught Kite and Crenshaw, cradled the trophy in his lap. As he did so tears welled up in his eyes.

Kite, on the East Coast, knew little of this. He was too busy answering questions, one of which was: 'What the hell are you doing here? You could have said you'd hurt your big toe or something and everybody would have understood.'

You might as well have suggested Kite should rob a bank. He was brought up to adhere to certain values: respect your elders, be polite, honour commitments, work hard. Now, at the time when he would have been forgiven for pulling out of an event, he did not give it a thought.

'I've never withdrawn from a tournament,' he said, sounding surprised at the very suggestion. 'It's a bad habit to get into.' Furthermore, he tried his heart out. 'I'd have been very disappointed if I'd missed the cut.' Fat chance. He finished joint sixth with Norman and Craig Parry.

Kite, then, is a man whose word is his bond, a man who never gives up, ever. If he gave up, how could he possibly have won money in 465 of the 517 tournaments he has played during his 20-year career as a pro? Would he have notched up 183 top-10 finishes and 17 victories and won nearly dollars 8m ( pounds 4.2m) on tour, dollars 1.5m more than anyone else?

'Dad taught me early that nothing comes to you unless you work hard for it,' Kite recalled last week. 'He always stressed hard work and self-discipline. He always said to me, 'Keep trying to play your best.' '

The precepts that were dinned in to Kite as a child are now being dinned in to his children. He and his wife, Christy, have three: Stephanie, who was 11 on Friday, and David and Paul, seven-year- old twins. Stephanie is an outstanding gymnast and the week before the US Open Kite took the family to Baltimore to watch the US Olympic gymnastics trials.

'I wanted Stephanie to see what it took to be the best,' Kite said. 'Maybe she will be good enough for the 1996 Olympics. If it happens I'll be behind her every step of the way. I'll do everything I can. I'll do for her the way Dad did it for me. He never pushed me, but he gave me every opportunity. He was always behind me.'

In 1989, when Kite led after three rounds of the US Open, Tom Kite Snr, a retired regional manager for the Internal Revenue Service in Austin, had allowed television cameras into his house to film him watching his son. He had not wanted to do it, but the persuasive television executives simply would not take no for an answer. It was as if he knew something was going to happen to his son. Sure enough, it did. Kite collapsed as he had so often in Major championships before last month's US Open.

In the final round of the 1984 US Masters he was leading when he hit into Rae's Creek. In 1985 he held the lead in the Open at Sandwich only to take a six on the par- four 10th on the last day. In 1986 he missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd green to tie Jack Nicklaus in the US Masters. Then at Oak Hill, while the cameras were trained on his father, he ran up a seven on the fifth (his 59th hole) and finished with a 78.

Kite first came to Britain with the 1971 Walker Cup team. It was, he recalled, one of the most talented teams to represent the United States. None the less they lost, 13-11 at St Andrews. Kite does not like losing. His face after Europe won the 1985 Ryder Cup was a picture.

Down the years, St Andrews has not treated Kite kindly. He missed the cut there in the 1990 Open, and was joint 22nd in 1984. He lost to Emmanuel Dussart when France sensationally beat the US in the first round of the 1990 Dunhill Cup. Nor is his record at Muirfield anything to shout about - joint 27th in 1980 and joint 72nd, with Jack Nicklaus, in 1987. In fact, including his first Open, which was 1976, he has had only three top-10 finishes.

Such lack of success has not hit him in his heart. He is not a student of the game in the way that Crenshaw is, but he knows well the place the Open holds in the history of the game.

'I didn't need anybody to tell me about it when I was growing up,' he said. 'I learned it for myself. Even in my dreams, even in my early days on tour, I wanted to win a lot of tournaments. Once you start naming tournaments you want to win, the British Open is not far down the list.

'British golf was not unlike golf in some parts of Texas,' Kite continued. 'In Texas we have different weather and that's why we have produced so many good players. When I was young the courses were often hard and dry, fast-running. They've changed now as course preparation has altered but I learned to hit bump-and-run shots to keep the ball low. When I got to Britain I liked the fact that it was different to almost all American courses.'

All his life Kite has battled the odds. He was small, fat, earnest and short-sighted as a child. By contrast, Crenshaw, who also grew up in Austin, was tall, good-looking and enormously gifted. During their days at the Austin Country Club, Kite and Crenshaw would play 18 holes together.

Then Crenshaw would dive into the swimming pool while Kite would dive into a bucket of balls to practise on the range. 'Ben was glamorous-looking and a long hitter, with a picture swing, the kind of game everybody likes,' Kite said. 'I was short off the tee and fat, grinding away, down the middle, on the green, one or two putts. The other thing was, when you're the older of two kids, you're supposed to win. Losing to Ben was embarrassing in that respect for a while.'

His rivalry with Crenshaw, which is a friendly one, is mirrored by Nick Faldo's less harmonious jostling for position with Sandy Lyle. The success of Crenshaw, who, to make matters worse, was two years younger, drove Kite on relentlessly just as Lyle's triumphs made Faldo work even harder.

Crenshaw beat Kite to a US Masters, but Kite beat Crenshaw to a US Open. Having won his first Major title at an age when most golfers are well past their best, who dares to say the 42-year-old Kite will not win another?

(Photograph omitted)