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If an 18-year career can be redefined by a single swing on an unloved course in a not-quite-major championship, then Tom Kite's career was just that on Sunday at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Kite, a thinking man's golfer, held a two-stroke lead over Bruce Lietzke and Chip Beck in The Players Championship—the PGA Tour's "fifth major"—as he marched up the fairway of the 497-yard, par-5 16th hole. Kite's ball lay 210 yards from the hard, contoured green, which has water halfway around it. All week the green had been about as receptive to fairway-wood and long-iron shots as the back of a rhino. The wind was gusting from left to right, toward the water, at up to 20 mph, and the pin was set on the right side. Beck. Kite's playing partner, had a poor lie in the rough and would have to lay up.
The smart play for Kite was to do the same, right? So what was a steady, conservative guy like Kite, who needed only to par in to win, doing with a four-wood in his hands? Who had to have the eagle here, Kite or Beck?
"I had a golf tournament to win," said Kite afterward. "I was trying to build up the lead as much as I could."
Beck couldn't believe Kite's choice of club. Lietzke said he doubted he would have tried it. Greg Norman, who had finished with a six-under-par 282 and was watching on television in the press room, rolled his eyes at Kite's decision.
Kite swung hard, fearlessly aiming to the left of the flag, and the ball made a long, gentle arc before landing dead center on the green. Whereupon it bounced up and scooted across the putting surface toward the water...closer...closer...before being grabbed by the long grass six inches from the drink.
"I was lucky," said Kite, who has led something of a charmed life of late. Two weeks ago, tied for the lead with Davis Love III at the 72nd hole of the Nestle Invitational, at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., Kite knocked his approach shot into the water and double-bogeyed. But he was given a reprieve when Love also double-bogeyed. Kite went on to beat Love in the playoff for his first win since June 1987.
Now, seeking back-to-back victories—the first such in his career—Kite chipped onto the 16th green and two-putted from four feet for par. He didn't need birdies. He just needed to get back to the clubhouse with his Titleist dry, and after he survived that nervy four-wood into the crosswind, the treacherous 17th and 18th holes must have seemed as wide as cornfields. Even a 60-foot putt up the three-tiered 18th green didn't faze Kite. He calmly lagged to 18 inches, then tapped in for a round of 71—one of only eight subpar rounds on Sunday—to go with his 69-70-69, for a nine-under 279 and a one-shot victory over Beck, who birdied the 18th from 20 feet to finish second.
The $243,000 Kite earned for his TPC victory—along with the $144,000 Bay Hill booty—put him in the top spot on this year's money list, with $561,723 in six tournaments. At 39, Kite now has 12 Tour wins and 22 second-place finishes, and has quietly moved into third place on the alltime money-winning list, behind Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, with more than $4.75 million in earnings. Yet, for all that, the personable Kite is not even the most famous golfer in his hometown of Austin, Texas. That honor belongs to his former University of Texas teammate Ben Crenshaw. "For years everyone has said Tom Kite's a pretty good player, he's done this and done that, but he's never won a major," Kite said on Sunday. "Well, after today you're going to have a tough time convincing me that this tournament is not a major. I'm sure going to call it one."
That should warm the cockles of PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman's heart. He has been seeking that designation for the TPC almost since it began, in 1974, although the label of major, like the emperor's new clothes, is mostly in the imagination of the beholder. What the heck. It's Beman's show. He can call the TPC anything he wants. Maybe he should name it The Fifth Major and be done with it. He has already changed the event's name—though not its initials—from the original moniker. Tournament Players Championship, to The Players Championship, in the not-so-subtle hope that The Players will evoke thoughts of the Masters.
But make no mistake, the Masters this is not. The tournament does have a great field, lured to the swamps of Ponte Vedra by $1.35 million in prize money and a 10-year exemption for the winner. With the exception of European stars Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, every top player in the world showed up last week. But how can a tournament that aspires to be a major be played on a golf course that seems to have been created in Toontown? Only a windmill is missing to qualify Sawgrass as one of the top crazy-golf tracks in Florida.