We have all seen the highlight-reel shots, from 35 and 25 years ago, respectively, at Pebble Beach: Tom Watson chipping in from behind the green to edge Jack Nicklaus for the 1982 U.S. Open; Tom Kite holing out a pitch shot from the rough on the way to capturing his only major, the 1992 U.S. Open.
“The big difference between the two shots was the amount of golf we had left to play,” recalled Kite on Sunday. “Tom’s came on the 17th hole, and he only had one critical shot left to negotiate, and that was to get the tee shot in the fairway on No. 18. Whereas mine came on Number 7, and there were so many more disasters awaiting out there that anything could have happened.”
“Disasters” may seem an exaggeration, except that Kite wasn’t simply trying to calm his nerves and block out the chatter of being called that era’s “best player without a major.” His final round came amid some of the most extreme conditions ever seen in the final round of a major championship. After three benign days on the Monterey Peninsula, 30-mph winds howled throughout the day with gusts to 40, and the course became nearly unplayable.
Kite recalled that heroic day on Sunday as players prepared for the final round of the 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills, which happens to be the first par-72 U.S. Open course since the 1992 U.S. Open. The third U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (after 1972 and 1982) also marked the first time in championship history that a player reached 10 under par: Gil Morgan got to minus 10 early in the third round before retreating, and he closed with an 81 on that momentous Sunday, when the scoring average was 77.3. Twenty of the 66 players failed to break 80.
Sunday’s conditions at Erin Hills were not expected to reach those experienced at Pebble Beach in 1992, although winds of 15 to 25 mph were expected for the final round after players took advantage of a softened, nearly windless layout over the first 54 holes. Just as Morgan had done 25 years ago, five players stood at 10 under or better as play began on Sunday, led by Brian Harman at 12 under.
“That’s going to be the interesting thing to watch today, to see what happens early in the round and to see how people respond to that,” said Kite of the leaders as they encounter windy, firm conditions unlike any they have seen so far this week.
“It’s certainly a much kinder, gentler U.S. Open,” said Kite, who has watched a lot of this week’s championship on television. “There have been lots of low scores, players are hitting 3-woods that hit the green and move only 7 or 8 feet after they land… That’s a little different than what those of my generation are used to seeing.”
Whether the conditions toughen substantially or not, none of the players near the top of the leader board has won a major – and most of them have never contended. Kite had been a runner-up in three previous majors before his breakthrough, but he did his best not to let that enter his mind.
“My concentration was so good that day that I caught myself a number of times, whenever I would start to get ahead of myself,” said Kite, who ended his career with 15 top-five finishes in 109 major starts. “They’re going to be out there for five hours today and their minds are going to wander. But it can’t drift off to: ‘What happens if I win the U.S. Open? What am I going to say, how proud are my parents going to be, etc.’ Everybody knows that it’s a cliché, but you really do have to stay in the present tense.”
Kite was kept plenty busy running the gauntlet of demanding holes at Pebble Beach, with the tiniest greens in championship golf.
A few moments stand out for Kite, including the stretch of holes that fueled his victory.
- “I double-bogeyed the fourth hole, then hit into a bunker on the [par-3] fifth. I hit a really nice bunker shot to about 8 feet and made a curling putt for par. Number 6 [par 5, 515 yards] was playing dead into wind – it’s hard for people to believe when I tell them today, but I hit a really good tee ball and a really good 3-wood, and I did not reach the upper fairway. I had to hit a punch 6-iron on my third shot to reach the green, then made a 20-foot putt for birdie. Then I chipped in on Number 7, and from that point on it was kind of ‘hang on for dear life.’ Those three holes really stabilized the round.”
- “We didn’t have as many leader boards around in those days. I saw a leader board near the eighth green, and I didn’t see another one until I got to the 12th green. What happened in that time was that Colin Montgomerie got in at even par. My caddie Mike and I had been thinking that, with the conditions, over par could win. We looked at each other and said, well, over par isn’t going to win.”
- “I remember the reaction when I hit my tee shot onto the green on the [202-yard, par-3] 12th hole. It was a decent shot, about 25 feet from the hole, but the gallery went absolutely crazy and that’s when we realized that these people hadn’t seen a ball on that green for a long, long time.” He holed the putt for a rare birdie.
“Of course the hole-out on Number 7 catches everybody’s interest,” said Kite, “but as a player going through it, every hole is a battle. You can’t get wrapped up in what happens on one hole, either positively or negatively, because you’ve got so many more holes to go.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.