Imagine, if you can, last week's Masters without Tiger Woods. Instead of a singular exhibition of power and poise, the tournament would have been a collective scramble alternately exciting and unsightly, a war of attrition fought by several rather than dominated by one.
In our imaginary tournament, Costantino Rocca of Italy, the golfing Zelig who was there to fill out the scenery when John Daly won at St. Andrews in 1995 and who on Sunday walked Augusta National with Woods in the final pairing, took the early lead in the last round before gradually fading to 75 and a tie for fourth.
Rocca was joined there by Paul Stankowski, a blithe 27-year-old who must have realized during the final round that his second Masters was not the Hawaiian Open. Although he spent the entire week on the leader board, three quick bogeys on Sunday led to a closing 74.
Nearly everything went right on the final day for the winless, yet seemingly bemused, Tommy Tolles, whose out-of-the-pack 67 tied Steve Elkington for the day's best round and left him a stroke out of a playoff for our green jacket. "Without one player in the field, I actually stood my ground well this week," he said. "It was a rough week, but it was a wonderful week."
Tom Watson again followed the Sisyphean pattern that has plagued him in recent major championships. After coming out fast on Sunday with three birdies in the first five holes, Watson made triple bogey at the 7th, recovered with three more birdies—he led the field, including Woods, with 22 birdies over the four rounds—but finished with two late bogeys. In a Woods-less tournament he came in third, one stroke behind Stankowski and two behind the winner.
Who, we know, was Tom Kite, already a 19-time winner on Tour and the man skeptics have come to think of as over the hill at 47. Kite's next challenges, after serving as captain to the U.S. Ryder Cup this September in Spain, will probably be on the Senior tour, but subtract Woods from the field last week, and the major most suited to the big hitters with sure putting strokes would have gone to a short knocker whose work on the greens has been suspect for years. To cope with Augusta National's superfast greens, Kite worked to lengthen and slow down his cross-handed putting stroke, which had become short and quick. He had only four three-putt greens last week, which was the key to his score of six-under-par 282.
Kite's final-round 70 wasn't pretty—he chunked a short pitch into a bunker on the par-5 15th and made bogey—but if Woods were still an economics major at Stanford, it would've been good enough to win. And typical of Kite, the round was highlighted by a moment that underscored the tenacious quality of his play. After Kite holed a six-footer for a birdie on the 17th, he was moved to say, " Ben Crenshaw couldn't have stroked it better." Crenshaw had a tournament-low 111 putts.
Imagining aside, Kite has been almost absent from the highest levels of competition for the last four years. Confronted with some of the most difficult scoring conditions at the Masters in recent years, Kite opened with a 77 that included two balls in the water, but thereafter held together what had been a fragile game. By the end, he had hit 55 of 72 greens in regulation, which tied Woods for the best in the field. In addition to being an important personal victory, Kite's second-place finish in a major—even if it was by 12 strokes—was worth 180 Ryder Cup points, moving him to 28th in the team standings and putting him in the running to become the first playing captain since Arnold Palmer, in 1963. "It was nice to...I hate to say 'be in the hunt,' because obviously no one was in the hunt today," said Kite, who had finished second at Augusta twice before, in 1983 and '86. "But I won my golf tournament. Tiger won the other one."
Kite hasn't won a Tour event since early in the 1993 season, when he took the Bob Hope Classic with a 90-hole Tour-record score of 35 under par and followed up by winning the Los Angeles Open two weeks later. The year before, he had won the only major championship of his career, the U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach. At the time, even with Nick Faldo in top form, the always consistent Kite was considered the best player in the world. "I didn't think anybody could touch me," he says. "The game was so easy."
And then, suddenly, his moment passed. Soon after L.A., Kite ruptured two disks while playing with his twin sons, missed the cut in the 1993 Masters and was sidelined for a month. Although an exercise program eventually healed his back to the point where the pain has never recurred, Kite's play hasn't come close to his preinjury level. After finishing 22nd on the money list in 1994, Kite fell off the map in '95, plummeting to 104th. Last year he was 66th, primarily because of one good tournament, a second-place finish in the Greater Hartford Open. "That's the nature of the game," Kite said in the darkest days of his slump. "You can get it, but it never lasts very long."