From the Golf Journal Archives - Hanging Tough

Mar 19, 2010

Tom Kite conquered the elements of Pacific wind and personal frustration to take the 1992 U.S. Open title.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1992 issue of Golf Journal.)

When Tom Kite won the 1992 United States Open Championship, at Pebble Beach, in June, the first significant championship of his 20-year professional career, he ended not only 20 years of personal frustration, but also showed he had the grit to survive conditions that ruined the games of many other golfers.

Kite won by two strokes by shooting 71-72-70-72—285 for the 72 holes, two better than Jeff Sluman, who slipped into second place at 287 with 71 in the last round, and three ahead of Colin Montgomerie, of Scotland, who passed 25 men with a closing 70 and a final score of 288, even par.

Furthermore, where the field had posted 72 scores under par over the first three rounds, only four men bettered par 72 in the last.

With the Open’s normally narrow fairways and firm, fast greens, even the 66 survivors of the first two rounds, the finest in the game, couldn’t cope. Those survivors averaged 77.27 strokes in the last round after averaging 73.76 the previous day. High winds whipping in from the Pacific caused much of the carnage, but even though everyone understood this, the whole procedure for setting up Open courses was challenged. Staggering off the course after shooting 81, Raymond Floyd, the 1986 champion, called the setup “a joke.” Billy Andrade protested, too, and after closing out his Open with a shattering 81, Gil Morgan, who’d led the first three rounds, said, “The greens were treacherous.”

Since the USGA began imposing its ideas of the qualities it looks for in its champions, Open courses have been set up to focus on two primary objectives: First, an Open champion should hit fairways, and second, he should hit greens.

Those requirements go a bit beyond that, of course; the fairways are narrower than the fairways the players face in their normal swing through the country, and greens are more firm, forcing them to put more backspin on the ball than in most of their tournaments. Add the further element of the golf courses, the best and most demanding in the country, and anyone can see how winning the Open is the game’s most difficult assignment. In many respects, the Open course itself regulates its setup.

As the successor to P. J. Boatwright, a legend in the game, David Eger, the USGA’s Senior Director of Rules and Competitions, is largely responsible for translating the organization’s broad objectives into a specific plan. Explaining the USGA philosophy, Eger said, “The playing characteristics of every golf course should be maintained; we don’t want to lose the basic design concepts.

“You go to a place like Pebble Beach because it’s a great golf course. You always want to use the design features that make it great in your setup. Pebble isn’t very long – just 6,800 yards, and par is 72. Since it lacks length, we wanted it firm and fast. We also wanted to bring the ocean into play.”

The broad outline of the Pebble Beach setup had been put together by Boatwright, who had been the architect of the Open since 1969, when he succeeded Joe Dey. Eger followed Boatwright’s plan to a large extent, but he also made some adjustments, principally in fairway widths. The plan had been drawn up while Pebble Beach was covered in coarse-bladed kikuyugrass, but in the interval between the 1982 and 1992 Opens, the kikuyu had been replaced by ryegrass. With rye’s firmer base, drives could run away. So, to adjust for the changed turf, some fairways were widened. Where widths in excess of 35 yards have been rare indeed at the Open, both the ninth and 10th were opened to 40 yards, Eger said.

“We also moved the center lines of some fairways to positions that opened the greens better. For example, we moved the centers of both the 11th and 13th to the left, because the greens opened from the left side.”

Since the chip shot, like the drive, is a part of golf, in another significant change, the USGA cut the grass to fairway height behind the first, the 13th, and the 14th greens, creating chipping areas.

As the Open unfolded under mild weather conditions, Pebble Beach seemed eminently playable. In its two previous Opens, no one had scored under 70 in the first round. No one, therefore, seemed quite ready for what happened on the first day. Under overcast skies and hardly a breath of wind, six men shot 69 or better, among them Gil Morgan, at 66, the best 18-hole score at any Pebble Beach Open, and altogether 19 men broke par.

While the scoring tightened up as the normal tension of an Open began to be felt in the third round, when only 14 men scored under 72, once again no one was quite prepared for the turn-around of the fourth round. Weather forecasts had predicted the same overcast skies and light winds we had had throughout the week. Those familiar with the patterns realize that summer around the Monterey Peninsula can be overcast and calm, or sunny and windy.

Sunday began under the same low, gray skies, but the clouds began breaking up in mid-morning, after the course had been set up and play had begun. About half an hour before Morgan and Ian Woosnam, the last pair, were to tee off, the skies cleared, the sea sparkled under the bright sun, and the wind picked up strength, not only flinging balls off their flight paths, but drying out the greens as well.

In spite of the closely clipped fairways, cut to a little less than half an inch, which allowed the golfers to put as much spin on the ball as each man possibly could, holding shots to those small, hard greens had been thorny throughout the week. With the wind ripping in from the sea, that job became even more difficult.

Reflecting on what might have been, Eger said that had the USGA’s Championship Committee known the weather was about to change, Pebble Beach would have been more playable. Greens that had been lightly watered for the final round would have been more heavily watered, and the positions of some holes, like the seventh, the ninth, the 10th, and the 12th would have been eased. The hole on the 12th, a par 3 of 202 yards, had been set on the left side of the wide, shallow green, behind a broad bunker. With better information, Eger said, it would have been cut more to the right, setting up a better angle into the flagstick.

He added that some holes would have been shortened. The 17th is a prime example. Perhaps the most difficult hole on the course to par, the 17th is a long par 3 to an hourglass-shaped green set at the edge of Carmel Bay. It was here where Nicklaus played his wonderful 1-iron shot that hit the flagstick and earned him a birdie in the 1972 Open. No matter that the birdie was meaningless, since he stood three strokes ahead of Bruce Crampton, the runner-up, at the time, it was a great shot nonetheless. Ten years later Watson played his miraculous pitch into the hole, winning a birdie where a bogey seemed likely, and beating Nicklaus by two strokes.

The tee was set on the back portion of the green for the last round in June, stretching it out to 209 yards, directly into the substantial wind. As the day wore on and the wind blew stronger, more and more iron shots fell short, until finally the gallery seated in the grandstand behind the tee began chanting, “Wood, wood, wood,” whenever a player drew an iron from his bag. They were right; Colin Montgomerie needed a wooden club to reach the green, and Kite put his ball in the left greenside bunker even with his 3-wood.

THE CHAMPIONSHIP

To score well at Pebble Beach, the birdies must be made early, for what pass as the easier holes are clustered at the beginning of the round. The course never eases after the seventh, a devilishly tempting par 3 of 107 yards, the shortest hole in championship golf. Beginning with the eighth, a magnificent par 4 of 431 yards along the edge of craggy headlands bordering Carmel Bay, you are facing golf of the most demanding order. The eighth, ninth, and 10th, all ranging along the clifftops, test not only power and finesse; in troubling winds they examine nerve as well.

Early in the day, the scoreboards were splattered with red numbers, indicating scores under par, but as the golfer reaches that stretch of unrelenting holes that carry him through to the finish, the strokes somehow slip away.

Tom Sieckmann, for example, went out in 32, but Pebble Beach got to him coming back. He shot 40 and finished with 72. Others followed the same pattern: Donnie Hammond, out in 33, back in 40; Sandy Lyle, out in 33, back in 40, with an 8 on the 14th, a par 5. Others held on a bit better: Tom Lehman, out in 33, back in 36; Steve Pate, out in 32, back in 36; Ted Schulz, out in 33, back in 38.

None, though, could match Andy Dillard, a short, chunky Oklahoman who had failed on the Tour and who claimed he would play anywhere for money. Dillard began his day by birdieing the first from 10 feet. His chip from off the edge of the second, a par 5, somehow failed to drop for an eagle 3, but he holed from a foot and a half for a second birdie. Three more first-class irons, each within seven feet of the hole, led to three more birdies, and when a 15-footer fell on the sixth, Dillard had begun the Open with six consecutive birdies.

This was the 92nd U.S. Open; in all those years no one had opened with six birdies.

Dillard paired the last three holes of the first nine and shot 30, matching the Open record. He made only one other birdie, came back in 38, and shot 68.

Strangely enough, after he bogeyed three of the first four holes of the second nine, Dillard never held the lead, for Phil Mickelson, playing in his first tournament as a professional, had already shot 68, and Curtis Strange had beaten him with 67. A couple of hours later, Gil Morgan upstaged them all with 66. When the day ended, 29 men had broken par, and 16 others had shot even-par 72.

Scoring remained at the same high level in the second round. Once again 29 men broke par, but just 14 matched it. Regardless of Morgan’s opening round, he inspired very little confidence. A 45-year-old veteran of the Tour, he had won only seven tournaments in 20 years, and while he had placed third in the 1983 Open, his recent record had been grim. He had missed the 36-hole cut twice in the previous four championships, withdrawn after 36 holes in another, and placed 56th in the one he finished.

Nevertheless, Morgan followed up his opening 66 with a steady 69, the 36-hole leader at 135, just one stroke above the Open record. Nicklaus set it at 134 in 1980, and T C. Chen matched it five years later.

While Morgan held fairly steady, Strange fell behind. Erratic driving and uncertain putting led to a 78, dropping him to 145 for the 36 holes, 10 strokes behind Morgan. There would be no third Open for Curtis this year.

Dillard hung on, too. He quickly became a gallery favorite by following up his 68 with 70 and climbing into second place, three strokes behind Morgan. Ray Floyd, meantime, shot 69 and finished at 140, tied with Wayne Grady, the 1990 PGA champion, who shot 66, the best score of the day.

The 36-hole cut fell at 147, three strokes over par, and caught two great figures from the past. Nicklaus and Tom Watson, who had staged so many glorious battles, were grouped together in the first two rounds with Hale Irwin, who has won three Opens. Watson shot 75-73—148, missing by one stroke, and Nicklaus shot 77-74—151, missing by three. Mickelson missed as well. Evidently swept up in the tension, he shot 81, missing the cut by two.

As far as we know, no one had ever gone 10 under par in an Open. Ben Hogan had come close, reaching nine under in 1948, and others had challenged in recent years, but Morgan finally did it. Nine under at the start of the third round, he holed a 25-footer on the third hole to go 10 under. He also birdied the sixth, even though he hit into two bunkers, to go 11 under, then fell to 12 under with still another birdie at the seventh. By then he was running away with the Open, holding a seven-stroke lead, and those who had taken him lightly were beginning to wonder if they hadn’t been wrong. Now, though, he had come to that tough stretch of holes along the ocean.

Few men have fallen so far so fast. Within the next seven holes he lost nine strokes, and after the 14th had dropped from seven strokes ahead into a tie with four others, among them Kite, who so far had played steady although unspectacular golf. Three under par, Kite was playing the 18th as Morgan stepped onto the 15th tee. Tom parred the hole, shooting 70 for the day, and finished three rounds in 213, tied with Woosnam and Mark Brooks. Morgan pulled one stroke ahead by birdieing the 18th, and stood at 212.

The morning of the fourth round began as did all the other mornings of the championship, under heavy cloud cover and light winds. Soon, though, the clouds gave way to clearing skies, and as the wind swept in from the sea, scores soared. Payne Stewart, the defending champion, and Davis Love, who had played such exceptional golf early in the year, each shot 83, along with Gary Hallberg, at one time close to the lead. Mark Brooks, paired with Kite, shot 84, and worst of all, Scott Simpson, the 1987 champion, who had lost a playoff to Stewart last year, shot a wind-blown 88.

After only a few holes it was evident Morgan wouldn’t hold on. After three unremarkable pars, he double-bogeyed the fourth, won one stroke back with a birdie on the fifth, then double-bogeyed the sixth. Out in 41, he bogeyed four more holes on the home nine, shot 40, and finished with 81 and 293. Beginning with his double-bogey 6 on the eighth hole of the third round, Morgan had lost 17 strokes to par in 29 holes.

Kite, meantime, looked as if he might throw away his opportunity. He had caught Morgan, playing just behind him, by holing an 18-foot birdie putt on the first but he stumbled over the fourth, an innocent-looking par 4 of just 327 yards. Going from rough to bunker and then three-putting from 50 feet, Kite double-bogeyed.

He took one stroke back with a birdie on the sixth, but right away looked as if he had lost it on the seventh, the little par 3 that on this day was nearly unplayable into the gusting wind. No shot worked. Most men tried to punch a low 5- or 6-iron with a half-swing, hardly more than a chip shot, hoping they could land it on the front of the tiny green and let it run to the hole, set in the right rear, perhaps its toughest position.

Most failed; the ball either didn’t carry to the green or else ran over. Kite’s 6-iron hopped off the green and into the deep rough beyond; he’d have a struggle to bogey.

Some rounds turn on one unexpected shot. When Watson pitched into the hole on the 17th 10 years earlier, he had expected to come close. Kite, however, didn’t seem to have a chance. So he pitched the ball into the hole. Another case of a birdie where a bogey seemed likely.

Now he stood one under par for the day, four under for 61 holes, and had taken the clear lead. Still, the most dangerous part of the course lay ahead of him.

A safe par 4 on the eighth after driving well over 220 yards downwind with a 4-iron to stay short of the chasm that must be carried with the second shot, and then a major mistake. He pushed his approach to the ninth into deep grass on a ledge well below and to the right of the ninth green. A few more feet off line and he could have fallen to the beach 60 feet or so below. Kite then pitched up the hill and onto the green. Two putts, and a good bogey.

Cast-iron pars on the 10th and 11th, and Kite faced the 12th, with the hole behind the bunker cutting into the left side. He played a safe 4-iron right of the bunker, and from 30 or 35 feet, rolled the putt home. Another birdie and back to four under, still leading.

By then Colin Montgomerie had finished with 287 and had given Kite a score to shoot at, but Jeff Sluman was still in the hunt, playing the steadiest kind of golf. Out in 36 with a birdie and a bogey, Sluman had run off six consecutive pars and stood on the 16th tee even with Montgomerie. He’d need either a miracle finish or a collapse by Kite to catch up.

Another steady par on the 13th, and then Tom played the shot that won the Open. The 14th had been one of the more difficult holes all week. After a fine drive to the center of the fairway, Kite pulled a 3-wood into the rough, just short of the bunker that cuts into the side of the steep hill rising to the green. The hole was set on the high, upper ledge, just behind the bunker. Play the shot too short, and the ball might not clear the bunker; hit it too long and it could roll off the side or the back into the chipping area.

Kite played the shot just right; it cleared the bunker, came down on the edge of the green, then rolled within two feet of the hole. Another birdie; now Kite stood five under par, four strokes ahead of Montgomerie and Sluman.

He gave one of those strokes away by missing a two-foot putt on the 16th, and another by catching a greenside bunker with his tee shot to the 17th.

Sluman, meanwhile, had birdied the 18th, nipping Montgomerie by a stroke, but Kite still stood two ahead standing on the 18th tee.

Facing as much tension as he had ever known, with the Open within reach if he could hold onto his nerve, Kite played three first-class shots onto the green and nearly holed his first putt. It rolled within a few inches of the hole, and he tapped it in. A steady round of 72, and he had won the Open.

Talking in a halting, hesitant voice an hour or so after he had won his greatest prize, Kite tried to explain how he felt. “How do you describe my emotions? I don’t know words that can describe them. We’re talking of dreams that have been around many years. You start out with those dreams as a kid 5 or 6 years old. You know, ‘This putt is for the Open. This putt is for the British Open. This is for the Masters.’ Now to have those dreams come true . . . . You know; I still have a lot of dreams left.”

With his long-awaited victory at the Open, Tom Kite exploded the myth that he didn’t have what it took to win a major. (USGA Museum)


“How do you describe my emotions? I don’t know words that can describe them. We’re talking of dreams that have been around many years. You start out with those dreams as a kid 5 or 6 years old. You know, ‘This putt is for the Open. This putt is for the British Open. This is for the Masters.’ Now to have those dreams come true..." (USGA Museum)


How the mighty have fallen. Gil Morgan took it to 12 under par, a record, but lost strokes even more quickly. His birdie on the 18th on that roller-coaster Saturday was small consolation. (USGA Museum)