At 67 years old, Tom Kite carries himself with the same quiet dignity that marked his many years as one of the best golfers in the world. With 19 career wins, including the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, seven Ryder Cup appearances as a player and one as a captain, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
Remembered chiefly for his oversized glasses, a shock of red curls and steady, solid play, he doesn’t get enough credit for being an innovator and trail blazer.
Kite was one of the first players to use a sports psychologist. He also realized the virtues of fitness earlier than most on Tour. But the impact he had with a particular club reverberates to this day.
“I’ve always had a curious mind, so I started to really get into numbers of what I was doing and where,” Kite said. “Dave Pelz convinced me that shots dropped around the green make a huge statistical difference. He recommended I put a 60-degree wedge in my bag, which I finally did in the summer of 1980. At the time, the highest loft anyone else had was 56.”
Already acknowledged as a solid player, Kite saw the 60-degree wedge take his game to a higher level.
“That club is the reason why I went from being a pretty good Tour player to having a chance to win, a lot.”
By the end of the 1981 season, Kite owned the PGA Tour money title, Vardon Trophy and Player of Year award. In 1982, he finished third on the money list and once again won the Vardon Trophy. So prolific were his years in the ’80s that he was the only player to win at least one tournament every year from 1981-87. He capped off the decade by winning three events and the money title in 1989.
It didn’t take long for the competition to take note of Kite’s secret weapon and its ability to produce higher, softer shots that stopped more quickly than those struck with lower-lofted wedges.
“When you have an edge, something that works, you’d be amazed how many people notice,” he said. “Nowadays, you cannot find a player without at least a 60-degree wedge in their bag, and Phil [Mickelson] is among those that have 64- or more degree wedges in play. Harvey [Penick, his coach] used to tell me, ‘If you’ve got a good short game, it does not matter how good you can hit it and if you do not have a good short game, it does not matter how good you can hit it.”
Kite’s 60-degree wedge starred in his biggest moment on Tour. On a brutal final day at the 1992 U.S. Open that saw wind gusts up to 50 mph, Kite punched a 6-iron into a gale at the par-3 seventh hole, which was playing only 105 yards. His tee shot knifed over the green and into long rough. Taking out his 60-degree wedge, Kite holed out for a stunning birdie.
In all, Kite used the 60-degree wedge nine times in that final round, shooting 72 when the field average was 78.3 and winning by two strokes.
“That wedge,” he said, “won me the U.S. Open that day.”