Kite Only One Left Standing In 1992 February 14, 2015

Kite Only One Left Standing In 1992

"The whole round was just a run of great scrambles, but especially that stretch from five to 14 was where I won the tournament,” Tom Kite said. (Robert Walker/USGA)

March 26, 2010

By Dave Shedloski

As one of the most consistent and hard-working players on the PGA Tour for more than a decade in the 1980s and early ’90s, Tom Kite seemed destined to win a major championship. That he broke through at the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links should not have been a surprise – and yet it was. The reason? Because the conditions during the final round that June afternoon on the Monterey Peninsula were among the most inhospitable Kite and other contenders had ever encountered.

“I don’t know if those were the toughest conditions I’d ever played in, but they were definitely the most difficult given the circumstances,” Kite recalled last weekend. “That was one tough day.”

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Winds in excess of 40 miles per hour whipped the storied course along the Pacific, but the strongest of those winds didn’t begin to batter the field until later in the day, just as the final groups were beginning their final rounds in the 92nd Open championship.

So fierce were the forces of nature that Scotsman Colin Montgomerie, playing in his first U.S. Open, was declared the winner four hours before the competition would end. He was deemed to have secured the title by none other than Jack Nicklaus, the four-time Open champion, who had seen Pebble Beach in all its fury during a gusty final round 20 years earlier and emerged with the 72nd Open crown.

Montgomerie had submitted a 2-under-par 70, the low round of the day, amid increasingly heavy breezes, but he’d managed to reach the safe haven of the clubhouse just as the winds were reaching full howl. His 288 total, even par, made him the leader in the clubhouse, and he appeared all but unbeatable, given what the contenders were confronting on the course.

“Congratulations on your first U.S. Open victory,” Nicklaus, working in the 18th- hole tower as lead analyst for ABC Sports, told Montgomerie when the beefy Scot ascended the platform for an interview.

Years later, Montgomerie still can’t believe that Nicklaus ended up being wrong. “Who better than Jack Nicklaus to have assessed the conditions and the scoring at the time and declare your chances pretty safe,” said Montgomerie, who had begun the final round in a group of eight players tied for 28th place. “You look at what some of the scores were coming in behind me, and, yes, I fancied that my chances were rather good. But that just shows you what a tremendous round of golf Tom played. And Jeff Sluman, too, who also ended up finishing ahead of me.”

Sluman, who had won the 1988 PGA Championship, submitted a gritty 71 to post a 287 total. That performance made him the likely winner given the wreckage strewn about. And there was plenty of it.

Start with Gil Morgan, who had led after each of the first three rounds. Morgan, 45 years old at the time, had led by as many as seven shots in the third round when he’d gotten to 12 under par through seven holes – the first time a player had ever hit double digits under par in the U.S. Open. He was still enjoying the lead after a birdie from the back edge of the par-3 fifth hole Sunday before calamity struck. A crippling 81 dropped Morgan all the way to 13th place.

Morgan wasn’t alone – a who’s who of star players was posting high numbers. Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam each shot 79. Paul Azinger and Mark Calcavecchia went one stroke higher. Ray Floyd, the 1986 Open winner, dropped back after an 81. Mark Brooks, who briefly held a share of the lead in the final round, posted an 84. And Californian Scott Simpson, who won the ’87 U.S. Open a couple of hours up the road at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, penciled in double snowmen: 88.

Nick Faldo, who would go on to win the British Open the following month at Muirfield, Scotland, scurried about for a 77 and managed to tie for fourth with Nick Price.

Amid all these bumps, bruises, cuts and abrasions inflicted by a hard, fast golf course with small, firm greens exposed to the coastal breezes, the aptly named Kite kept himself aloft and relatively unscathed by relying on two instinctual assets. First of all, the diminutive Texan had always been a competent wind player dating to his amateur days. Secondly, few tour pros could grind out results better than one of legendary teacher Harvey Penick’s most celebrated pupils.

Kite, who won 19 career titles, was the first player to pocket $6 million in career earnings, followed by successive breakthroughs at $7 million, $8 million and $9 million. Nine of his victories came as he neared, then passed his 40th birthday.

“A lot of good things were going on for me in my golf game around that period,” said Kite, who was 42 at the time. “My physical game was good, yes, but mentally I was very strong. My family situation was great; all of the kids were a little bit older, no longer babies, so I felt a little more at ease when I left home to go play. And I was still very motivated to play well.”

A resume void of a major victory undoubtedly helped Kite maintain his desire. He’d finished runner-up three times previously in Grand Slam tournaments, but it was the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill, where he tied for ninth, that was the most disappointing. Kite, who won three times that year, including The Players Championship, and was the PGA Tour Player of the Year, led after three rounds at Oak Hill before crashing home in 78, as Curtis Strange became the first repeat Open champion since Ben Hogan in 1951.

Of course, Kite wasn’t thinking of that when he embarked on his final round at Pebble Beach, trailing Morgan by one shot. “You can’t dwell on past disappointments and possibly play your best golf,” he said.

All his: Tom Kite cradles the trophy that had eluded him for so long. (Robert Walker/USGA)

And he needed his very best on that Father’s Day, June 21.

A 20-footer for birdie at the par-4 first hole got him started on one of the finest putting rounds of his career. Kite saved an eight-footer for par at No. 5 after a double bogey on the previous hole. At No. 6, he sank a 25-foot birdie putt.

Then came the hole and the shot that would define the championship and his career. Kite, now the leader, had missed the green badly at the tiny par-3 7th, a hole measuring 107 yards that required 6- and 7-irons that afternoon. Kite chose 6-iron, aimed for Japan, and watched as the wind carried his ball far left of the green, into wiry rough near the eighth tee.

He then hit what he calls the shot of his life, a 60-degree flop that banged off the flagstick and into the hole for birdie. Kite bent from the waist after watching the ball disappear, doubled over from the shock of such an unlikely result. Just like Tom Watson in 1982 and Nicklaus in ’72, each of whom authored iconic strokes on the way to their U.S. Open wins at Pebble Beach, Kite produced a highlight for the ages.

“Everyone remembers that shot, and believe me I will never forget it,” Kite said, “but it happened a lot earlier in the round than the shots Tom and Jack hit, and I still had a lot of work to do after that.”

Indeed. He scrambled for par at No. 8, thanks to a six-footer. Another six-footer, this one for bogey, came at the ninth. He canned a 25-foot par putt at 11 and made a 30-footer for birdie at the par-3 12th. A birdie from two feet at the par-5 14th was set up by another gorgeous little wedge shot.

“The whole round was just a run of great scrambles, but especially that stretch from five to 14 was where I won the tournament,” Kite said. “To have held it together, made some of the putts I made, I never worked harder on the golf course, I don’t think.”

The victory put an exclamation point on a career that saw him win just twice more, including a dominating six-stroke victory at the Bob Hope Classic, when Kite set a 90-hole scoring record of 325 that stood for eight years. He added another runner-up in a major at the 1997 Masters, though few remember because he ended up 12 strokes behind Tiger Woods. In 2001, at age 52, he tied for fifth in the U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., his only top-10 in the Open after his stunning triumph.

“That period in 1992-93, there for about a year I felt I was arguably the best player in the world,” Kite said. “That was sort of my time to get it done, and that I was able to do it in the U.S. Open, and at Pebble Beach, which I have always loved, that really was the ultimate for me. That was the golf tournament that I wanted to win most.”

Dave Shedloski is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on usga.org and USGA championship sites.