Golf as Tom Kite has played it for the last 17 years is an exercise in metronomic achievement. He is not particularly glamorous, just reliably excellent.
Accurate, hard-working and unspectacular are a few of the other things Kite is regularly called. "He is credible," said his longtime agent, Vinny Giles. A metal company in Pennsylvania has hired him to play its corporate outing for 10 straight years. His endorsement contract with the Ben Hogan company for shoes, clothing, clubs bags and visors is good for a decade.
He is steady, never winning a major championship but rising above it all -- a 5-foot-8, 155-pound constant, whether he likes it or not.
"Everybody has some kind of reputation," Kite said. "They have to label you somehow."
Recently the game revealed that Kite might be more than all of that. At 40, the Texan long regarded as a limited if able player has gained a sort of mystique, becoming the PGA Tour's all-time leading money winner, with nearly $6 million. Last year he set a single-season earnings record with $1,395,278 and three prestigious victories, including the Players Championship. He also suffered one of his greatest disappointments, a heart-rending demise in the final round of the U.S. Open at Oak Hill when he shot a 78.
When Kite appears in the Kemper Open this week at TPC-Avenel, he will use it as a chute into this year's U.S. Open in Medinah, Ill. He also will seek to remedy a season that, by his standards, has been something of a struggle. The 1987 Kemper victor and 1988 runner-up has been plagued by uncharacteristically high scores the last few weeks, typified by his performance last week at The Colonial, where he shot a third round of 77 and finished 14 over par, third to last.
"I've shot some very un-Tom Kite rounds," he said. "I've had a bellyful of them. One or two was more than enough. I'm ready to get rid of them."
But inconsistency for Kite is this: a stroke average of 70.158, five top 10 finishes for $266,499 in earnings and the Tour lead in reaching greens in regulation. The problem has been a wayward putter, and Kite's idea of a cure is to work it into submission. Typically he will play four consecutive events leading up to the U.S. Open, while many other players are taking a rest. He will be one of the few marquee names in the Kemper, joined by Seve Ballesteros and Craig Stadler.
"I'm just trying to be as patient as I can," he said. "If I wait long enough the putts will start dropping. . . . This is a long stretch for me, but I haven't been playing as well, and I need a couple of good tournaments under my belt going into the Open."
Ah yes, the Open. The tournament that stressed again his lack of a major title to go with his other accomplishments -- 1989 PGA Player of the Year, more prize money than Jack Nicklaus, the most successful guy to never win the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA. He would appear to be as deserving as anybody. His well-rounded game -- straight off the tee if lacking in length, with an emphasis on accurate irons, deadly wedges and nerveless putting -- would seem perfectly suited to at least the Masters and the Open. But he has infrequently contended, and been consistently denied.
After that devastating tie for ninth last year at Oak Hill while Curtis Strange went on to win, Kite said: "I'll survive. And I will contend in more majors, I promise you." With a year to reflect on what happened, his current view is that at least he was a factor in a tournament that he had not played well in before. In fact, Kite has held the third-round lead of a major tournament only twice, the '89 Open and the '84 Masters he eventually lost to Ben Crenshaw.
"I enjoyed last year's Open," he said. "It was a great experience. Certainly it was not exactly what I wanted. But I'm excited and I think I'm ready to challenge again."
Kite's outward temperament cloaks a player who burns inwardly. He sidesteps the question of how badly he desires a major, the undeniable goal of every golfer, and an accomplishment last year's PGA champion Payne Stewart remarked he would have been unfufilled without. "There's enough pressure out there without saying something like that," Kite said. "When all is said and done I'll be happy with my career."
Evidence of his desire are long hours on the practice tee and gnawing competitiveness. He has had stretches of remarkable consistency. He was in the money in all 23 events he entered last season. In 1981, he was among the top 10 in 21 of 26 events.
He also would have you think that he does not slave to make up for physical deficiencies like poor eyesight and lack of stature and natural ability, that his work habits are no different from those of other players. "Everybody works hard," he said.
"He's lying," Giles said. "I'm not sure he wants people to think he's got a different work ethic. . . . He knows what he's trying to accomplish out there."
His wins say much about him, quietly burrowing away at difficult courses, uncomplaining of conditions. While everyone raged against the crazed bounces on the immature par-71 TPC at Avenel course, Kite went out and nearly won the Kemper back to back, losing a playoff to Morris Hatalsky in '88. He won the Players Championship at the much-loathed TPC-Sawgrass last year with a final round of 71 on an afternoon when only seven players broke par.
If Kite doesn't have a flourish to his record, he can take solace in his status as the leading money winner. That honor probably is somewhat deceptive given the tremendous increase in purses, but it makes up for a lack of glamorous endorsements: his Hogan deal, while comfortingly long term, is far less lucrative than some and he restricts his outings to 10 or 12 a year, commanding a relatively modest fee of $25,000.
Mainly the money-winning title indicates a notable longevity, his credibility as Giles called it.
"It's a nice feather in my cap," Kite said. "You try to do as many things as you can in your career. It indicates I've been able to play well for a pretty long time."
When he is not working, Kite dabbles in course architecture, currently consulting on a redesign of the second course at Baltimore Country Club's Five Farms. He also spends time at home in Austin, Tex., with wife Christy and his three small children. But mostly he is working, with that modest, relentless consistency.
"I think that's what we're all trying to do," he said. "You don't go to the practice tee or the practice green to become inconsistent. The more consistent you are, the better you are doing your job."
PGA Tour's all-time money leader at $5,867,190.
Ranks second in career Kemper Open winnings with $247,506. Won tournament in 1987, was second in 1988.
Is 20th on PGA earnings list this year with $266,499.
Stroke average of 70.158 this year. Ranks first in PGA in greens hit in regulation (.704).