The first PGA tour event of 1991, if you believe Christy Kite, was actually won one day last July on a westbound jet somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. That's when her husband, Tom—a low-flying Kite after some ugly putting had just caused him to miss the cut in the British Open at St. Andrews—turned to her in his seat and said, "It's kind of ridiculous, isn't it?"
On Sunday afternoon, Christy served up this innocuous comment as a turning point in her husband's lately desperate quest to regain his putting stroke. Minutes earlier the 41-year-old pro from Austin, Texas, had tapped in for par on the 72nd hole to win the Infiniti Tournament of Champions by one stroke over Lanny Wadkins. Kite was beaming like a new daddy after having shot a 16-under-par 272 over the La Costa Country Club course in Carlsbad, Calif.
"The putter is back!" he exulted.
Such exuberance from the Tour's all-time leading money-winner ($6,402,893) was uncharacteristic but understandable. Lost putting strokes are not like lost puppies; they don't respond to prayers, and they often escape the most diligent neighborhood search.
And Kite's putting definitely ran off and hid in 1990—he ranked 170th on the Tour, with an average of 30.06 putts per round. In 1989, his Player of the Year season, Kite ranked 23rd with an average of 28.84 putts per round.
That explains why Kite, despite what he calls the best ball-striking of his career last year, came up more than $700,000 shy of his '89 total to drop from first to 15th place on the annual money list. As he put it Sunday, "It's a heck of a lot harder to stay on top than to get there."
So what happened on that flight across the Atlantic? According to Christy, Tom simply decided to ignore the snickering from other pros, the media and fans that greeted his off-again, on-again experiments with a cross-handed putting style.
"He putted well cross-handed, but he caught so much grief for it," she said. "Putting cross-handed is a last-ditch thing. You putt cross-handed before you die."
At La Costa, Kite putted cross-handed...and lived. He did the same thing last August, when he got the lower hand on John Cook and won the St. Jude Classic in a playoff. That encouraging victor qualified him for the winners-only Tournament of Champions field for the 11th time.
"All I needed to do was redirect some of my attention onto the short game," Kite said Saturday after shooting a third-round 68, good for a two-stroke lead over Wadkins and Fred Couples. "That's really what my game was built around and what enabled me to play so consistently for so long."