But, hot as he is, Kite, 32, is trying to shake a "can't win" image. He has finished first in only two of those 35 tournaments, and he has never won a major championship. While he's not exactly throwing his clubs, he is concerned. "Maybe, just maybe," says Hale Irwin, who beat out Kite on the final hole to win the Inverrary Classic in Lauderhill, Fla. last month, "he's trying too hard. If you watch closely, you can see blood coming out of his putter." Kite denies that he chokes and insists it's only a matter of time "before I win a potful of tournaments. [He has won a total of four in his pro career.] I think I'll win three or four this year."
He already has his first 1982 victory: the $54,000 top prize in the Bay Hill Classic in Orlando in March. This week Kite will get a chance at one of the most prestigious tournaments on the tour, the Masters in Augusta, Ga., where he quietly finished fifth last year. "I'll just have to play well and hope nobody else gets any extraordinary breaks," he says.
Born in Austin, Texas, Tom grew up playing golf with his father, an Internal Revenue Service administrator. By age 11, Tom was a country club champ in his age group. Before he left the University of Texas in 1972 (he was a business major), he shared the NCAA title with teammate Ben Crenshaw, now also a leading pro. "My dad wasn't very optimistic about me turning pro because of my size [5'8" and 155 pounds]," Kite recalls. "Most golfers are bigger than I am and can outdrive me. But I can beat them other ways." Kite thrives on accuracy. In his first season, Tom won only $2,582. The next year, however, he collected $54,270, and since 1976 he has been in six figures every year.
"Golf is an all-captivating game," Kite says intensely. "It won't let you beat it. It's you against you." Kite is devoted to making sure his odds against himself are optimum. His only real hobby is repairing his clubs. He spends hours carefully retooling and aligning them to like-new condition. To sharpen his putting game, Tom uses a small computer during practice. It measures light reflections to gauge club head angle and force. Even after tournament rounds, he spends extra hours practicing. "I understand my swing now," he confides. "Before now, I was on a 'building program,' constantly adjusting and readjusting. Now I'm on a maintenance program."
Laughs his wife, Christy, 30: "If he's had a bad round, I just leave him alone and let him hit a 'mad bucket' "—a pail of practice balls whacked as much for frustration-venting purposes as for technique's sake. Kite's self-control extends to all phases of the game; on the course, he shows almost no emotion. "If I get publicity," he explains, "I don't want it to be because I joked around and wore a red wig on the fairway."
The Kites own a three-bedroom house in Austin, but Christy and the couple's 6-month-old daughter, Stephanie, usually accompany Tom on the tour—"so we can have some sort of family life," Christy explains. With his earnings and endorsements Tom has invested in real estate. His dad serves as his adviser. Tom is successful and comfortable, yes; complacent, no. "I'm not as patient as I look," he says. "A year from now people will say, 'How could I have doubted that Tom Kite could win tournaments?' "
Tom Kite has a problem every golfer should have. He has finished in the top 10 in 26 of his last 35 tournaments on the pro golf tour. Last year, his 10th as a pro, Kite was the game's top money winner at $375,699, and he had the lowest per-round average, 69.80. Oh, yes, Kite's 1982 earnings have already topped $150,000.