And Tom Kite would be even more pleased if big drivers and long-distance balls went into the dustbin, too
It IS one of golf’s immutable laws. Just as Bernhard Langer will always play slowly and Tom Watson will forever be brisk, it represents the safest of bets that Tom Kite will be working on his game. For the former US Open champion and, since 2004, World Golf Hall of Fame member, the range and practice green have always been second homes, where he has found frustration and fun and everything in between.
“For me, the game has never changed,” says the 62-year-old Texan, who is currently in Scotland for the Senior Open at Turnberry. “The quest to get better is still there. I may play a little less these days but I still love competing. Even the golf I play at home is mostly in preparation for a tournament. So it’s social golf, but it’s not. I play with a bunch of good players I’ve known since I was a teenager. We have great matches but, when I quit travelling, I’m not sure how much of that I’m going to do.”
What he should do is involve himself in golf administration. Like so many of his direct contemporaries, Kite harbours grave doubts about the way the game has been run over the last two decades or so. And, despite the fact that he is one who wields a “broom-handle” on the greens, he isn’t afraid to express the view that such clubs should not be part of the game he loves.
“The belly putters and long putters are legal and both are wonderful ways to putt,” he says. “But I don’t think they are good for golf. When it comes to equipment, the USGA and the R&A have been very neglectful. It all goes back to the Ping case in the early 1980s. When the authorities tried to make a rule about the shape and width of grooves on irons they found themselves being sued. And, because they didn’t have the money to risk losing, they ended up having to settle. Which was a disaster. They backed down and haven’t stood up to anything else since.
“It can’t be good for the manufacturers to run the game. The equipment is a huge part of why golf is struggling to grow. Yet the manufacturers say that people are having more fun. Well, if that is so, why aren’t they playing? The answer is simple. Ask anyone who doesn’t play golf why they don’t and they typically give one of two answers. Either the game is too expensive or it takes too long to play.”
The “takes too long, costs too much” argument is not a new one, of course. But Kite isn’t finished yet.
“I don’t look at this selfishly,” he continues. “The game has been great to me. So, if they tell me I can’t use the long putter any more, I’m fine with that. I’ll figure out another way. I’ve always figured out a way. I only use a long putter because I hole more putts with it. It’s all about getting better. That’s what drove me to be the first guy to use a 60-degree wedge, I wanted to be better. That’s why I work out. And that’s why I had my eyes fixed.
“The great irony is that, by doing nothing, the authorities have created two games. Professionals and the amateurs have never been further apart. No action is an action though. The Ping case was so detrimental to the game. What Karsten Solheim did was fine for him and his company, but it wasn’t in the best interests of golf. If the USGA had won that case, the game today would be a lot different – and a lot better.”
Such a contention is all but impossible to argue with. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how much money has been wasted over the last two decades or so, lengthening courses far beyond the original intent of the architects. It is a sad fact that the vast majority of golfers – whether consciously or not – are having less fun than they were before the explosion in distance.
“If I were in charge I’d roll things back, starting with the ball,” says Kite. “We need to get to the point where the longer hitters don’t gain the most. We need to create a situation where Dustin Johnson and Aunt Agnes both gain, say, 10 per cent on their best hits.
“The size of the driver head needs to be reduced drastically. I’d take it down to at least 300 or maybe 280cc. That would take care of the length of the club. With a smaller head, no one is going to have a long shaft and the sweet spot would be smaller too. The art of driving would return to the game. I’d also take a look at the weight of drivers. Lightweight materials do make it easier to swing the club faster.
“So I’d go after the balls, the drivers and the putters. But the putters are not a big priority. The balls and the drivers have to come first, with the putters down the list. Which is not to say that I don’t think something should be done, especially as the long putters have evolved to the point where they no longer represent a desperation move by players. Guys use them now just because they are a better or easier way to putt. I know that because I’m one of them.”
On a happier note, Kite was at pains to emphasise how much he enjoys his trips to our shores. A member of what turned out to be a losing US Walker Cup side in 1971 at St Andrews, he has been a regular and welcome visitor since. And, as you’d expect, he has performed with distinction on more than one occasion.
“I love coming to Scotland and the UK,” he says. “I haven’t had as much success as I would have liked – I did win the European Open at Walton Heath and I’ve been second in the Open a couple of times – but I’ve loved it all. We don’t have links golf in the States – even your parkland courses are more ‘linksy’ than what we have – so it’s nice to play that form of golf. I’ve always enjoyed the challenges it brings.
“I really think luck, good and bad, should be a huge part of the game. Golf was never meant to be fair. And it isn’t here. But, on the PGA Tour, everything is often too perfect. The young guys seem to want and enjoy that. But it’s too black and white for me. Golf should be a thousand shades of grey. And links golf is like that.”
All in all then, it hasn’t been a bad career (so far): A major championship victory, 19 PGA Tour wins and ten on the Champions Tour, plus seven Ryder Cup appearances – and a stint as non-playing captain.
“It has never been work to me though,” insists Kite. “To be honest, I’ve never worked a day in my life. All I’ve ever done is have fun. I’m just a 62-year old kid who wants to go out and play nine more holes before it gets dark.”