There was a moment on Sunday, with 28 players still on the windswept Pebble Beach Golf Links and more than two hours of play remaining, when the U.S. Open was all but conceded to a fair-haired Scotsman named Colin Montgomerie—a.k.a. the Leader in the Clubhouse. At the 18th green, just as the LITC holed out for an even-par 288, Jack Nicklaus even told him, "Congratulations on your first U.S. Open victory."
At that very moment Tom Kite—who was leading Montgomerie by three strokes—stood in the rough off the seaside 7th green, trying to keep his balance in a 40-mph wind. He was surrounded by calamity. Third-round leader Gil Morgan, a 45-year-old nonpracticing optometrist, had just hit one over the cliff on number 6. Raymond Floyd and Paul Azinger were in dire straits somewhere up on the Cliffs of Doom, otherwise known as the 8th, 9th and 10th holes. On the 9th fairway, spectators were buzzing over double and triple bogeys—balls flattened by the wind, balls knocked onto the beach below, putts missed from inches because of rock-hard greens. And the par-4 10th had become a par-6, with the last seven pairings having produced seven double bogeys and three triple bogeys.
As for the damnable 7th, a 107-yard par-3—well, the grass surrounding Kite was still warm from the wrath of Nick Faldo, who had just taken five strokes to complete the hole. The day before, number 7 had required the simplest of pitches from the tee, a wedge and, for some, a sand wedge. On Sunday it required a six- or a seven-iron, and if a player didn't aim for Honolulu, his ball would settle near the 8th tee, in wiry, ankle-deep grass or, worse, down the cliff.
You probably know what happened next. Kite, who had blown a final-round lead in the 1989 Open by shooting a 78, took his 60-degree wedge, one of three wedges in his bag, and lifted his ball out of the grass and into the cup for a birdie.
The shot was eerily reminiscent of Tom Watson's tournament-winning chip-in on the par-3 17th in '82, the last time the U.S. Open was played at Pebble Beach, except that Kite didn't gallop around the green in exultation as Watson had done. He simply stood there in the grass, bearing an incredulous grin. "Watson only had one hole left to go, and I had the whole golf course left," said Kite later. "I couldn't allow myself to get as emotional as I would have liked."
Instead, Kite tamed himself—and the elements—for a steady 72 to finish with a three-under-par 285 and win the 92nd U.S. Open by two strokes over 1988 PGA champion Jeff Sluman, the only other man to break par over four rounds. To win, Kite had to kick a few "buts" on Sunday:
•No. 1 money-winner of all time, but he has never won a major;
•most consistent player of his generation, but he can't handle the pressure of a major championship;
•most dedicated grinder on the tour, but he can't decide which hand goes on top when he putts.
"Bugged the living daylights out of me," said Kite on Sunday about all the buts in his life. "That's all anybody ever wanted to talk about."