Maybe it was the 30 white Cadillacs lined up in the Harbour Town Golf Links parking lot. Or maybe the third-round leader's Leona Helmsley-like comment that the prize money amounted to "pocket change" for his PGA Tour colleagues. Whatever the reason, spectators at Sunday's final round of the Nabisco Championships must have thought they had wandered into Malcolm Forbes's birthday party. Had winner Tom Kite been borne off the course in a sedan chair, no one would have raised an eyebrow.
This was the week when just getting out of bed spelled "payoff' for the 30 Tour players who were invited to Hilton Head Island, S.C., for the richest golf tournament in history. John Mahaffey shot a first-round 80 and still got $41,500. Mike Reid finished last but pocketed $40,000. Donnie Hammond, for finishing fifth, made $100,000—more than Sam Snead made in his first nine years as a pro. Kite's caddie, if he received the usual 10% of the winner's check, left the island $45,000 richer.
Such sums pale, however, when compared with what Kite pulled down Sunday by beating Payne Stewart on the second hole of sudden death. The winner's share of the purse, $450,000, boosted the 39-year-old Kite past Stewart into first place on the final money list for the season. That, in turn, triggered a $175,000 Nabisco bonus for ... well ... being first on the list. Kite's $1,395,278 in PGA Tour winnings set a single-season record and moved him to the top of the career earnings list with $5,600,691, ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. "It's a distorted statistic," said Kite, who has had 13 wins in 18 years on the Tour. "I'd be foolish to say this makes me a better player than Jack or Tom."
While the pros stuffed their pockets with Nabisco loot, a healthy debate simmered over just how much "distortion" is desirable in a season-ending tournament. "It's too much," said defending Nabisco champion Curtis Strange, who jumped from seventh to first on last year's money list by beating Kite in the Nabisco playoff at Pebble Beach. "I don't mean to be critical, but this tournament has too big an effect on the money title and the Player of the Year ratings."
"The balance just isn't right," said Greg Norman, who finished tied for 11th at Harbour Town and fourth on the money list. "I think it would be good if this tournament wasn't on the official money list."
The early rounds hardly lived up to the pretournament hype. With the aroma of greenbacks rivaling the salt air of the Atlantic, the weekday galleries maintained a sort of bank-lobby decorum, clapping only for great strokes and cheering for none. Hammond, who this fall had risen from 92nd to 26th on the money list while most of the country was raking leaves, took the first-round lead with a 65 and credited his success to a swing tip from fellow pro and CBS golf analyst Gary McCord. Round 2 belonged to the wind-loving Kite, who shot 65 and went four strokes up on a field bedeviled by 30-mph gusts off Calibogue Sound. But it was Saturday's phenom, Wayne Levi, who put the money question into perspective. Levi, an eight-time Tour winner who also plays the financial markets, shot a course-record-tying 63 and then told reporters, "I need the money to cover my margin calls from the last mini-crash." Asked if he felt the pressure of playing for almost half a million dollars, the Tour's high flyer laughed and said, "That's the thrill of it. Miss a shot, blow 50 thousand dollars. Make a good shot, win it back."
That note of Levi-ty cleared the air, and on Sunday the pros went after the loot like contestants on the old TV show Supermarket Sweep. Stewart, this year's PGA champion and No. 1 on the money list since August, birdied the first five holes and then electrified the gallery at the 9th by holing a 121-yard wedge shot for an eagle 2. That gave the blond Missourian, clad in his trademark plus fours, a front-nine, course-record 29 and a three-shot lead over Hammond, Levi and Kite, who were playing behind him. His lead was down to two strokes by the time Stewart reached the par-3 17th, the first of Harbour Town's two wind-whipped seaside holes. He parred 17 and safely crossed the marshes on the 458-yard finishing hole, needing only two putts in front of Harbour Town's signature lighthouse to be virtually assured of victory. Instead, Stewart rimmed out his three-foot putt for par and his lead shrank to one.
That opened the door for Kite, who stood on the 17th tee with what he later described as a "straight-down hurricane" at his back. Praying that the gusting wind wouldn't knock his shot down, Kite struck a perfect seven-iron three feet past the hole.
Minutes later, after twice stepping away because of the wind, he sank the putt to tie Stewart at eight under. "That was as tough a putt as I've ever had to make in my life," Kite said. "I felt like the Transamerica building rocking in the earthquake standing over that putt." At 18 Kite saved par, and the tie, by chipping on and sinking a four-footer.
Although the playoff pitted the two top money winners against each other in what amounted to a half-million-dollar skins game, it proved to be anticlimactic. Both Stewart and Kite parred the par-4 16th, and the tournament ended on 17 when Stewart left his putt from the fringe short, then missed a four-footer for par. The victory gave Kite enough points to pass British Open champ Mark Calcavecchia for Player of the Year honors and perhaps provided salve for the wounds that Kite inflicted on himself in June with his fourth-round collapse in the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.