As Tom Kite reached the precipitous ninth tee yesterday and gazed down at the tiny green 75 feet below, he never dreamed he'd win the Kemper Open by seven shots. He never fantasized about going birdie-birdie-eagle in the middle of a back-nine 31. He surely never guessed he'd have the best perch in the stadium to pace idly and watch the turning point in his own rich triumph.

"One-shot lead coming to the turn. Then win by seven? No chance, no way," Kite said, laughing, after his 64-69-68-69 -- 270 week of work over the TPC at Avenel left runners-up Chris Perry and Howard Twitty out of sight.

This wasn't just another Kemper rout, like Craig Stadler's 1981 and '82 Congressional waddles or Greg Norman's waltz in '84. As Kite trudged to No. 9, all momentum lost, he'd been staggered by four early bogeys against only two birdies. His wheels were almost off the axles. "I sure wasn't puttin' any fear in their hearts," Kite said.

Just one shot behind him was defending champion Norman, the fast-closing Great White Shark with most of the huge crowd of 50,000 egging him on. At that moment of crisis, the ten-pint Texan never imagined he'd have the $126,000 prize pretty darn nearly handed to him.

No, Kite never guessed that Norman, Scott Hoch and Dave Barr ("my three main threats") would all crash and burn on the same hole while he watched from the crow's-nest tee with a mixture of fascination and horror. Double bogey, double bogey and triple bogey, that's what they took. Sixteen blows on a teensy 182-yard par-3. Here, Tom, it's yours if you want it.

"It got so bad watchin' 'em hit it back and forth {across the green from creek to trap to creek} that I just turned around and started talkin' to the gallery," said Kite, who now has 10 PGA Tour titles. "I told 'em, 'I don't want to watch this stuff. I gotta play this hole in a few minutes.' Watching that really doesn't make you want to jump up there and hit it at the flag."

When Kite came to the ninth, he led Vardon Trophy winner Hoch by only two and the dangerously streaky Barr (24 under par to win at Atlanta) by three shots. Thereafter, he didn't hear from them again. Norman sank so fast he never left a slick, bogeying the 10th, then double-bogeying the 12th; he had to rally for 73 just to share fourth with Mike Reid and Scott Simpson at 6 under par.

By the time Kite put his ball safely on the ninth green for a cozy par, he had been handed seven shots by key foes. Enough to calm his nerves. Enough to restart his stalled motor. Kite sank two-pace birdies at the 11th and 12th and a 40-foot eagle putt on his lucky 13th hole.

"Man, I tell you it was not as easy as it looked. The front nine was really work for me," said Kite, who bogeyed 1, 4, 5 and 7. "I was lucky nobody made a run at me."

Norman's chances for a third Kemper title in four years disappeared with double bogeys each of the last two days at No. 9 -- both times courtesy of Rock Run trickling to the right of the hourglass green. Any changes you'd like to see made in that hole, Greg?

"Yeah, blow it up," he said.

Norman was just one of many players who found Avenel far more difficult than they'd assumed after Thursday morning's birdie blitz. Norman predicted that 20 under par would be needed to win. In the end, only Kite, at 14 under, finished more than 7 under par.

"You need to think a little bit on this course," said Kite. "Water comes into play and you can't just say, 'Gimme driver, 6-iron.' You have to work your ball. Stay out of trouble. I like conditions like this."

"Only two good things happened today," said Norman, probably the only man who could have beat Kite if he had used better judgment on his iron shots near the creek. "I finally finished my round. And the Celtics won."

Doesn't Greg Kite play for them?

Norman did his best to entertain the largest Kemper Open crowd ever, breaking last year's Sunday mark of 38,000. However, he was a Shark in a bad mood just below the surface. Avenel, with its mind games, doesn't suit his hellbent game. He thinks he can do anything, so he tries to do everything. At Avenel, where Rock Run meanders everywhere on the ninth through 13th holes, it's imperative to pick your spots wisely. "Playing this course is like playing chess," said Kite. Norman would prefer full-contact karate.

Kite's superior strategy won this Kemper, although Norman may never appreciate it. On the ninth through 13th, Kite generally played cautiously, yet negotiated that beautiful deep woods stretch in 12 under par. Norman attacked that heart of the course and played those five holes 3 over par for the week.

As he stood in the 14th tee, his chances gone to gurgling graves, Norman snapped to the crowd, "What a jerky course."

"I have no idea if I'll be back next year," Norman said afterward. "Before {as defending champion} it was automatic. Now, I'll have to think about it. . . . This has been great here. I've enjoyed it because of the people . . . .

"I'm just frustrated because, believe it or not, I'm playing extremely well. . . . I can't understand it. I really can't. I get it there. Then No. 9 happens. I'm just in an empty trough. I should be grateful that I'm still having chances to win."

On a day when the field scoring average was 74.066, survival was the order of the day. Perry (75), who started one shot behind Kite, bogeyed six of the first eight holes before salvaging some pride. Twitty (71) made mini-moves, then always backed up immediately.

"This place is like Augusta National in one respect," said Kite, risking giving a heart attack to architect Ed Sneed. "The same holes where you can make birdie -- like No. 6 and that whole beautiful stretch of 10-11-12-13 -- is also where there's danger everywhere. When you get behind and have to gamble, you start making double bogeys."

Kite only gambled once, but he managed it magnificently and it may have iced this victory for him.

At the tiny 136-yard 11th hole, he hit a 9-iron shot to six feet and made his third birdie of the day. "But twice before I'd followed birdies with bogeys. The whole day was like trying to climb a mud hill and sliding back," said Kite. "I hadn't seen a scoreboard that worked since the eighth hole . . . I knew I was ahead, but I didn't know by how many. I felt I had to do something. . . . I told my caddie at No. 12, 'What the heck. Let's shoot at it.' "

So, from 192 yards out, with the pin tucked tight behind the creek where Norman had just splashed his way to a double-bogey 6, Kite smoked his best 5-iron shot right at the stick. "Best shot of the day. Probably my best of the week." Six feet. Another birdie.

The easy 524-yard 13th hole had little chance. Kite, who had hit two drivers to reach and birdie the downwind 615-yard second hole, only needed a 4-iron to reach the center of the green. His small gallery of perhaps 500 (thousands were following Norman) gave Kite polite applause.

When he reached the green, Kite finally saw a functional leader board for the first time in five holes (and 90 minutes). Three-shot lead.

What would Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan do? Why, they'd sink that uphill 40-footer on the very last roll to lock up the prize and send the pretenders home. And, this time, that's just what Kite did, too, pumping his fists over his head after he got over the initial split-second shock of having administered such a knockout punch. Normanesque, no?

"I couldn't believe this stuff I was hearing about how easy the course was," said Kite. "I thought there was tremendous potential for bogeys and double bogeys. I made more bogeys than any tournament I've ever won. You can't really overpower this course. You just move your pawns around and wait for your chances."