The evening sky, cracked like a mirror, was a surreal mixture of blue streaks and swirls of gray and purple clouds. One gleaming white thunderhead hovered above the red 100-yard flag where Tom Kite delivered shot after shot. It was after seven o'clock, and Kite was the only person on the range at the TPC of Michigan, unless you counted his 15-year-old son, David, who borrowed his dad's sand wedge to try some shots of his own while waiting for his diligent father to finish practicing.
Tom Kite, the last man on the range? That used to be a familiar sight. He was known as the hardest-working player of his generation, a man who achieved success in part because of a Ben Hogan-like work ethic. Last Saturday evening Kite was animated, enthused and rejuvenated because for three days at the Ford Senior Players Championship, in Dearborn, Tom Kite golf was back.
Tom Kite golf is a relentless succession of fairways hit and greens in regulation, usually adding up to unspectacular but satisfying 67s and 68s. It's a style the 1992 U.S. Open champ used to become the Tour's most consistent player, next to Jack Nicklaus. Kite's only slump came during a brief stretch in 1991, when he was passed over for the Ryder Cup team. He responded with the finest golf of his career in '92 and early '93 before he injured his back on a theme-park ride in Orlando. When he shot a Tour-record 35 under to win the '93 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Kite was asked which players deserved to be ranked ahead of him. "It's a short list" was his succinct and accurate reply.
Poor putting, bordering on the yips, dragged him down as he reached his late 40s, golf's no-man's-land. After 25 straight years with at least one top 10 finish, Kite limped through '98 and '99 without one. "It was pathetic," he says. "I felt like a rat in a maze. You make so many right turns and left turns, you can't get back to where you were."
This year, his rookie season on the Senior tour, has been a qualified success. In April he won a major, the Tradition, in a playoff with Larry Nelson and Tom Watson that featured a mesmerizing combination of heroic shotmaking and brutal putting. Kite won again last month at the SBC Open in Long Grove, Ill., after trading in the Bulls Eye putter he had used for most of his career for a mallet-headed SeeMore, the putter that played a big role in reviving Payne Stewart's game last year. The awkward-looking SeeMore helps with alignment, and Kite discovered that he had been aiming left of his target.
Three weeks ago a second-round 65 carried him to a third-place finish at the U.S. Senior Open, and in Dearborn, where his worst score after three rounds was a 68, Kite appeared to be on the verge of challenging both Bruce Fleisher and Hale Irwin to become the tour's dominant force. "This is what I've been waiting for," Kite said before the final round. "It's nice to be back."
His declaration proved to be premature. A second Senior major eluded him on Sunday when he made a pair of double bogeys on the closing nine—hardly Tom Kite golf. The gaffes added up to a four-over 76. "All I had to do was shoot even par to get in a playoff," said Kite, who instead saw Raymond Floyd, who had trailed by six at the start of the day, sail past him and to victory with a 66. "The way I was playing, shooting under par wasn't a real tough go. I played horribly."
The win was Floyd's first since he won this same event in 1996, and he was appreciative. "To crack the ice in a major after four years is very special," he said. But at 57 he has no illusions of challenging on a regular basis. Kite could, if he plays Tom Kite golf, and he's not far off.
As Kite slowly headed toward me clubhouse after his tough finish, signing autographs along the way, David walked up next to him. "Wasn't very much fun today, was it?" Tom said, trying to smile. No, David answered softly. Then Kite gave his son a long, warm hug. Overhead, the sun appeared ready to break through.
—Gary Van Sickle
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]