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Kite is successful _ but no "overachiever'

Without his glasses, he can barely see the big "E' on the top of the eye chart. The glasses, horn-rimmed, are about as thick as a windshield.

Then there is the curly red hair, the freckles, the Texas twang and his planter's hat.

When fans encounter Tom Kite for the first time, they do a double take.

This is the guy who has won more money than anyone in the history of golf?

He is 5 feet 8 and 155 pounds, and Kite knows he does not fit the mold of the quintessential, finely-tuned, big-driving golfer.

Kite would be the first to admit he is woefully inept at all sports except the one at which he is so adept.

In golf, he is not long and he is not strong. But there he is, pushing his glasses up his nose, getting the ball in the hole faster than flashier players, winning golf tournaments at a rate that puts him among the game's greats.

The preconceived notions about a golfer's size and strength have made many believe that Kite gets the job done because he works harder than others or, in a word, overachieves. All of this causes Kite to feel like he just missed a 2-foot putt.

"I've always had a problem with the term "overachieving,' " said Kite, who will defend his 1992 title in the 93rd U.S. Open this week at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. "Basically what that means is you're saying an overachiever is doing something that somebody else doesn't think he ought to be able to do. But who is that somebody else to put limitations like that?

"Don't put them on me. I really have a tough problem with that word "over- achieve.' That is somebody with very low standards trying to put his standards on me. I won't buy into that."

Perhaps that is why Kite seems to be getting better as he gets older. He is 43 and playing some of the best golf of his career. Already this year, he has won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Los Angeles Open. If it weren't for a herniated disc that caused him to miss the cut at the Masters and a month of tournaments, he likely would be the PGA Tour's leading money-winner. Still, he is third with $661,876.

"What I'm doing right now are things I thought I would do five or six years ago," Kite said. "That's when everybody does it, if they're lucky, when they're in their middle 30s. I'm having mine in my 40s.

"It's consistency. That is what I want. I love it. Most people put a negative connotation on it, but if you look at the practice tee, those guys are not trying to become inconsistent."

Until a year ago, however, Kite carried the burden of being the best golfer never to win a major championship. He blew a three-shot lead during the final round of the 1989 U.S. Open, and there were near misses in other majors such as the Masters and the PGA Championship.

But with the wind gusting up to 35 mph across the cliffs and coves of Pebble Beach Golf Links, Kite was steady during the final round of the 1992 U.S. Open, shooting a par 72 while 20 players could not break 80.

That gave Kite a two-shot victory, and helped erase the bad memories of his 1989 collapse, when he shot 78 and finished five shots behind Curtis Strange.

Even Kite wondered if he would win a major after that disaster, but he wasn't about to quit trying. Since then he's had some of his best years. He has won 19 PGA Tour events and $8,274,795 in his career _ $2-million more than anyone else.

"I'm playing with as much or more confidence than I ever played with in my life," Kite said. "Obviously, the Open had tremendous impact on it. I wouldn't say it would be the one big thing. There were a number of things. It's been kind of building. I really think maybe I'm coming into my prime."

Kite's father gave him a cut-down golf club when he was 3 years old, and he has been playing ever since. Some would say grinding, because Kite always can be found working on his game, perfecting his swing, studying it. While at the University of Texas, he played in the shadow of Ben Crenshaw, a more gifted and natural player. The two even shared an NCAA title.

Crenshaw came on tour and won his first professional event, but Kite slowly caught up to his friend and rival. Kite has two more victories and has matched Crenshaw's only major, the 1984 Masters.

"There are a lot of things I want to do that I haven't done yet," Kite said. "The total victories are getting up to a nice number. More than anything else, it's longevity of my career. The fact that I've been a pretty good player for a number of years.

"There are a lot of players who are good this week, next week. There are a lot of players who are really good for a two- or three-year span. But when you start talking about players who have been very good for 15 or 20 years, then that list starts going down. I'm pleased with that."

And Kite has managed all of this while surprising those around him. This year, he leads the PGA Tour in greens hit in regulation (73 percent) and is third in scoring average (69.73).

"I'm not 6-2, 220. When a player isn't 6-2, 220, he has to play within his limitations," Kite said. "And he tends to look to the public as nonaggressive. A player looks aggressive when he reaches the par 5s in two, or when he even tries to.

"Well, I can't reach the par 5s in two. I'm not given the opportunity to play what appears to be aggressive golf. I'm really a fairly aggressive player. I don't give in to a golf course. But I'm not a stupid player. You don't last out here making dumb mistakes."

As smart as he is, Kite is amazed at what winning a major has done for him.

In addition to the financial rewards (corporate outings, endorsements, overseas appearance fees), his popularity and recognition have skyrocketed.

Despite being successful for two decades, Kite was somewhat anonymous.

Said Kite's wife, Christy: "As much as Tom's been on TV over the years, I can't believe the public recognition he's getting. I had no clue you'd be that much more recognized. You can tell it just walking down the terminal at the airport. I can't fathom what it must be like if you're Michael Jordan."

Added Kite: "I don't know that anybody is prepared for what it's like until they've actually won a major. There's a big difference as far as people noticing me, more so than I thought. After 20 years out here and having done what I'd done, I sort of thought people knew who I was. But they are a lot more supportive and vocal than before.

"I think I've signed more autographs since I won the Open than I did in the previous 20 years."

All-time money leaders

1. Tom Kite $8,274,794

2. Tom Watson $6,220,352

3. Paul Azinger $6,050,263

4. Payne Stewart $6,029,056

5. Fred Couples $5,953,590

6. Greg Norman $5,936,646

7. Curtis Strange $5,840,933

8. Lanny Wadkins $5,769,287

9. Ben Crenshaw $5,413,330

10. Jack Nicklaus $5,353,011

_ Through June 6