Tom Kite has hit more golf balls than any human being, living or dead. Or least he thinks he’s pretty close.
“I’d guess me or Gary Player,” says Kite, the Hall of Famer, 1992 U.S. Open Champion and noted range rat. “Hogan and Vijay Singh would be up there, too. That’s a good list right there.”
Kite was relaxing on a Chelsea Piers putting green Tuesday in New York City, across the Hudson River from Liberty National Golf Club, which he co-designed with Bob Cupp. As part of Citi’s global partnership of the Presidents Cup, Kite hosted a clinic for kids for The First Tee, the program that teaches life and character skills through golf. The 61-year-old Kite also sat down with Golf.com to talk about growing up in Texas, Tiger, and why he was a match play titan.
The Presidents Cup is this week in Australia. You played in seven Ryder Cup singles matches and compiled a remarkable 5-0-2 record. What does it take to be great in match play?
You have to fall in love with match play and some people don’t. I always loved what I would call the urgency of the matter. There was something about match play that was more urgent than what you get in medal play. It has to be done now. You don’t have that on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or even early Sunday in medal play. But in match play, you’re going to get the point or you’re not going to get the point, and it’s going to happen in the next few hours. I liked the feeling of knowing every shot meant something.
You played at a time when the Ryder Cup really took off as a fiercely competitive event. What do you remember?
Well, I started in the Ryder Cup at a time when it wasn’t anything. It was “Let’s go beat up on the Europeans, drink some of their wine, have a nice victory dinner, and come on home.” In 1979 and 1981, that was before it got competitive. In ’83, it really got competitive. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were huge proponents for putting all of Europe into the mix. Without that, the Ryder Cup probably would have never caught on.
What do you recall about your captaincy in 1997, besides Seve riding around in that cart? [Europe defeated the U.S., 14 ½ – 13 ½]
Seve was all over the place and I was all over the place. The weather was so bad. The southern coast of Spain hardly ever gets rain that time of year, but we had a monsoon. It put the tournament behind schedule and we lost a lot of the fun part of the Ryder Cup – going back to the team room and kicking around and kidding with each other and getting to know everybody. There wasn’t any of that because we were behind schedule and we played until dark, had a quick dinner, went to bed, and tried to catch up. So we lost a little of that [camaraderie].
What’s the toughest thing about being a captain?
Not playing. You sit there and do everything you can. You prepare, you try to get as much data as possible, you go back into the history books and read about the successes and failures of previous captains, but if your guys don’t play well… Fred Couples is coming under some heat for picking Tiger, especially early, and not choosing Keegan Bradley [in the Presidents Cup]. Well, just because Keegan played well in August has no relationship to how he plays in November. I can’t really find fault with Freddie in that decision. You prepare as best you can and hope your guys play well. If they do, you look like a genius and if they don’t, you look like an idiot. It’s like being an NFL quarterback — too much credit and too much blame. That’s what it’s like as the captain of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
Do you understand why Couples picked Tiger?
There were some guys on the Champions Tour speculating that it might have been some sort of conspiracy that came down from the [PGA] Tour. I know Freddie pretty well and Freddie really doesn’t like controversy. He just wants to get things out of the way, and he wanted Tiger on the team and there was no point in delaying it. The thing that it did was gave Tiger a month to get ready for the Presidents Cup. That probably was a pretty good move. We saw Tiger play great last week. We’ll know Sunday night if the decision was the right one.
Do you think he’ll break Jack’s record for 18 majors?
I don’t know. Three years ago it was a no-brainer. I think he’ll win tournaments again. I don’t know whether he’ll win majors again. He’s still a young man and has plenty of opportunities left to win, but I don’t know. Heads yes, tails no.
What do you think of guys like Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson going into the Hall of Fame so young? Isn’t that an achievement that should come at the end of a career?
There are a number of us on the Champions Tour who made suggestions to Jack Peter down at the Hall of Fame about changing the regulations. There are a number of us, and I’m certainly one of them, who believe that you need to either be 50 years old or have been away from the game for a couple of years or you’re only playing “X” number of tournaments. That’s not a slap at Vijay or Phil or Ernie or any of the guys that got in before age 50. That’s just kind of the way it’s done in all the other sports. I think it’s kind of crazy not to have a kind of waiting period of some sort.
When Liberty National hosted the Barclays golf tournament in 2009, Padraig Harrington said it could host a major championship the next day. Others, including Tiger, were less than thrilled with the course. Did the criticism bother you?
I think it’s a very good golf course, and I think for the most part, most of the guys were very receptive to the golf course. Some, like Tiger, his only practice round was the pro-am. It’s a golf course that you need to play a little bit. The fact that he never came out on Monday, never came out on Tuesday, shows that he had his mind was elsewhere. We’ve made some adjustments to the golf course, softened a couple of greens.
What was it like being a golfer growing up in Texas in the age of Nelson and Hogan?
I can remember as a kid going out to the Dallas Open before it became the Byron Nelson and the Colonial before it had a corporate sponsor. Watching those guys play, it was magical, the mannerisms that they had, the way they handled themselves, the way they treated people, the style in which they played the game. They dressed immaculately. Ben Crenshaw and I were lucky that we took lessons from Harvey Penick. Harvey was such good friends with both Byron and Hogan, and they were both welcoming.
Was Hogan misunderstood?
I don’t know that he was misunderstood. I think he was very much an introvert. He wasn’t very outgoing or gregarious. The friends that he got to know and the people that he liked and the people that really got inside that inner shell loved him. I never quite cracked that shell, but every time I had any action with him at all, it was tremendous. I treasured those times with him.
Next year it will be 20 years since you won the U.S. Open at Pebble. Where did the time go?
Seems like it was just a couple of days ago. It goes by fast. Going back to your question about will Tiger pass Jack, you just don’t know. It goes by so fast, even while you’re doing it. It goes by faster than you wish it would.