But when that magical it goes away for a long stretch of time, one wonders if it is gone for good. While Kite says his back injury wasn't the cause of his slump, he has no other definitive explanation. The death of his lifelong teacher and friend, Harvey Penick, the week of the '95 Masters hit Kite hard but certainly did not affect his swing, and Kite believes that as he has grown older his swing mechanics and ball striking have become sounder. He is quicker to blame poor putting, a neglected short game and careless course management—parts of golf that are rooted in confidence—for his demise. "You can't hit the ball purely enough to shoot low if you are not making anything," says Kite. " Mr. Penick always said you improve your ball hitting so you don't have any high scores, but you improve your short game so you can shoot low scores."
As much as Kite hates to admit it, the player whom sports psychologist Bob Rotella once called the most determined and disciplined on Tour has been struggling to find anything positive to build on. "I tend to beat myself up," says Kite. "My dad [Tom Sr.] always felt if you worked really hard you would be a success, but I've learned that that approach is a strength and a weakness. It wasn't until I learned to let go a little bit that I became a top player. You know: Work hard, but when you play, play."
Kite is taking a similar philosophy to his Ryder Cup captaincy. At Augusta he was animated in talking about the event with the younger players who have a good chance of making the U.S. team, bending Stankowski's ear about Valderrama even during the heat of the final round.
"I'm enjoying the whole thing, especially getting to know the young players on our Tour," says Kite, who played with Woods during last Wednesday's par-3 tournament. "The Ryder Cup isn't going to be a grind, and it's not hurting my game. It's probably helping."
Since being named captain after the 1995 match, Kite has won two unofficial tournaments, the Oki Pro-Am in Madrid in October, which included a reasonably strong contingent of players from the European tour, and the Shark Shootout in Thousand Oaks, Calif., last November, at which he teamed with Jay Haas.
Although he admits he has gotten negative at times during his slump, Kite is adamant that he has never lost his desire to play and excel. "A few times, when my game or the putting, especially, got really bad, I wondered: Is it over? Am I done?" Kite says. "But then I'd think, Wait a minute. There are still too many things I want to do in golf. My round on Sunday tells me I'm right."
One of the hallmarks of Kite's career is how well he has bounced back from disappointments. That trait has been tested as never before over the last few years. Still, he hasn't gotten gun-shy.
"It hurts to want to win, to try to be the best [when you're playing poorly]," he says. "But I don't mind the hurt because that's what makes the wins mean so much. And that's why the next one is going to be so great."