- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
He was referring to a PGA Tour qualifying rule that allows golfers in the top 50 in career earnings to take a onetime, one-year Tour exemption. Kite had never paid any attention to it--he had never needed to--but suddenly he was very interested. Christy, back online again, immediately looked up her husband's ranking on the career money list. He was 38th.
By the end of the year Kite had fallen to 44th. He knew if he didn't claim the exemption for 2005, he'd lose it altogether. In December he told the Tour to sign him up for this season. He wanted to feel the juice again.
Entering Doral, Kite had played in three regular Tour events this year: the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he made the cut and finished near the bottom; the Hope, at which he shot rounds of 71, 69, 74 and 70 and was seven shots short of qualifying for the fifth and final round; and the rain-plagued Nissan Open in L.A., where he shot 74 and 72. The week before Doral, Kite played in a senior event in Tampa and tied for ninth. Nothing too good. There were players on the Champions tour waiting to see him run back to the no-cut circuit where the golf is good but the atmosphere sleepy.
Kite couldn't care less what others say. You'd never know it, but he has a mile-wide independent streak. In 1980 (spurred by short-game guru Dave Pelz) Kite invented the 60-degree lob wedge. He was the last golfer to win a major--the '92 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach--using a persimmon driver. In '98, Kite says, he became the first player to undergo LASIK surgery and tossed the thick glasses. In 2002 he became the first prominent senior player to use a regular-Joe carry bag; now there are scores of them on the Champions tour. The only reason Kite has switched to a big Titleist bag is because the company demanded it as a term of his endorsement contract.
This year Kite became the oldest player ever to use the career top 50 rule to declare himself exempt on Tour. Between now and the U.S. Open, he'll play at least a half-dozen Tour events and try to qualify for the U.S. Open and the British Open. In July he'll take stock of himself and his game and determine a schedule for the rest of the year. Either way, he'll play in the senior majors and some other Champions tour events.
Kite no longer gets the showcase tee times he once did. Last Friday at Doral his starting time was 7 a.m., 10th tee, in the first group of the day. He started hitting balls at 6:15, in the predawn darkness, working by floodlight.
The day before, he had played a solid opening round, a two-under 70. He can't play smashgolf, but he can play the same game that Glen Day, Fred Funk and Jeff Maggert do. On Friday he was one over for the day through 16 holes and one under for the tournament. His guess was that the cut would be three under. Standing on the tee of the par-5 8th (his 17th hole), Kite was looking to close with two birdies. His tee shot was solid and straight, and now he was looking at the 250-yard approach shot, downwind.
"I have to go for it," Kite said.
"No you don't," his caddie, Jones, replied.
He laid up well short of the water, nearly holed his third shot with a sand wedge and tapped in for birdie. The greenside stands were filled--Tiger would soon be coming through--and Kite acknowledged their applause with his familiar curled-lips smile.