From six feet away, Tom Kite is one of the more charming, honest and sassy performers in sports. In his tangy, colloquial Texas way, the man from Austin loves to see the surprise he causes when he lets a little piece of truth drop in the proper polyester world of pro golf.
Ask him how it feels to be the 14th-leading money winner in the history of the game and he says, "Meaningless statistic. They ought to throw it out."
Throw out his $1,420,000 in purses?
"It's all inflation," drawls Kite. "It's not fair to the great golfers of the past . . . Wins are the only thing that matter . . . I don't have too many of them (four in 11 years)."
Well, isn't he proud that he was top money winner last year and golfer of the year in two of the sport's four polls in '81?
"I voted for Bill Rogers," says Kite. "He had a better year than me . . . I only won one tournament and it wasn't a major."
It's Kite's misfortune that all the qualities that distinguish him up close--such as his intelligent and comprehensive practice methods--are not evident at a distance.
From beyond the gallery ropes, the 5-foot-8 1/2 Kite, who won't even give himself that extra half-inch in the TPA Tour media guide, just looks like a slightly flat-footed, uncharismatic 155-pound plugger.
"I'm better with small groups than large crowds," said Kite after winning the Bay Hill Classic here on Monday by beating Jack Nicklaus and Denis Watson on the first hole of a playoff before a crowd of perhaps 2,000. "I've never understood it. I'm outgoing by nature. I smile. I try to show my emotions and be myself, show the people how I feel, whether it's good times or bad.
"Some players just have that special thing with crowds. Arnie (Palmer) is good in small groups, but put him in front of 5,000 people and he just lights everybody up. Ben Crenshaw's the same way . . . It's a gift."
Interestingly, Kite and Crenshaw shared the NCAA championship as teammates at Texas a decade ago. Since then, both have won an identical $1.4 million in prizes, plus a bit of odd change. Neither ever has won a major title. However, Crenshaw is famous because of his smile, his wild-swinging forays into the underbrush and his marvelous putting. Kite, who does nothing better than the best, yet does nothing less than well, has only a fraction of Crenshaw's following.
In golf, everyone says, "It's not how, it's how many." That, it seems, applies to everyone except Kite.
His Bay Hill win was typical. His rounds of 69, 70, 70 and 69 were cookie-cutter consistent, but never eye-catching. Kite was invisible until after the 72-hole tournament was over, in a sense. Then, with Kite in the clubhouse, big names such as Nicklaus and Ray Floyd collapsed.
Naturally, when Kite chipped in for a birdie to beat Nicklaus and Watson, all the TV stations here in Central Florida and many others around the country had exercised their option to switch to local news and forsake the golf shenanigans.
That's par for the Kite course. If there's a way not to be noticed, he'll find it, even though the feisty 32-year-old, who will wear a television microphone on course and who has been a visible spokesman on the Tournament Policy Board, would love to get his share of the spotlight.
Last season, and again this year, Kite took fewer strokes to get around a golf course than anybody in the world. In '81, he won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average (69.80) and again in '82 he is No. 1 (69.05). With $115,710 in '82, he's threatening to be leading money winner again.
Most amazing, he's made 41 consecutive cuts, and, in '81, finished in the top 10 a phenomenal 21 times in 26 starts. Already this season, Kite has a first, second (at the Bob Hope) and third (San Diego).
In victory, Kite showed his unique style by, sardonically, "apologizing" to Nicklaus and Watson for winning with a chip in. "I told 'em, 'You're not supposed to win that way,' " said Kite. "I didn't play as well as Jack and Raymond (Floyd) this week. I've played a lot better on weeks I didn't win. But this week I had some (good) fortune."
Despite his fortune and his fortune, it galls Kite that he remains a mystery to so many. As a player, he's seen as a short-game wizard, yet he insists, "That's a misperception."
As a competitor, it drives him crazy that "I hear people say, 'Kite's too conservative, he'll never win.' Well, I'm not a conservative player at all. I'm just not stupid. I consider myself to be a very aggressive player, that's for damn sure.
"I think people call me conservative because they haven't been able to put a finger on why I haven't won (more). As I haven't. They're just trying to find some logical explanation . . . But being conservative is definitely not it. I don't know where people dream up some of this stuff."
Someone says to Kite that, with his style of play, he's the sort who should do best in the tight-course majors. Yet he hasn't. "It's not over yet," Kite says with a grin.
Finally, on Monday evening, after basking in the glow of crowds, cameras, microphones and notepads, Kite gave his own cryptic farewell to the well-wishers around him. "It's just nice to see you after the last round," said honest Tom Kite. "I see you too often (after being the leader) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday."