Each time Rory McIlroy arrives at Augusta National, the burden of expectation is a little heavier. It’s been that way since 2011, when he lost a four-stroke lead on Sunday. He won the very next major by eight shots and three more since, but those trophies may as well be checked at the public end of Magnolia Lane. The Masters is a major onto itself – what you accomplish elsewhere doesn’t subtract from the pressure of anticipation, it only adds to it.
McIlroy isn’t the first elite player to arrive in Augusta every April wondering if this is the year. The Hall of Fame is full of guys who drove back out onto Washington Road carrying only the jackets they arrived with. Trevino. Weiskopf. Miller. Norman. Els.
And Tom Kite.
Kite lacked the power, panache and personality of the aforementioned stars, but no man ever played Augusta National better for longer without earning a seat at the Champions Dinner.
The soft-spoken Texan can vividly recall his first Masters appearance. It was 1971, and he was an amateur. His hands were shaking so badly in a practice round with Charles Coody that the former champion laughed about whether the kid could even steady his ball on the tee. He settled down well after that. His Masters record includes nine top-5 finishes, including three seconds, and 12 top-10s.
To fully appreciate his longevity, consider this: Kite is the only man to finish runner-up in a major championship to both Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Both came at the Masters: Jack’s last title in 1986, and Tiger’s first in 1997.
“It was a little different finishing one shot back of Jack and 12 shots back of Tiger,” Kite says. “In ‘86 I had a chance to win.”
On the final green that day, Kite’s 10-footer to tie grazed the low side of the hole. I asked if that putt is the Masters shot he would most like a do-over on.
“I don’t play that game,” he said firmly. “There are an infinite number of shots that I didn’t get the result I wanted and quite a few shots that turned out really good. If you start playing that game you drive yourself crazy.”
Kite really believed he would win the Masters. Would, not should.
“Should is something other people put on you. That’s like me saying the guy sitting across the way should lose weight or should quit smoking,” he explains. “The so-called experts look at physical gifts and try to speculate on the internal stuff – what the mind is doing, how strong the stomach is, things like that. I felt I would win and I came very, very close.”
The close call that hurt most wasn’t one of Kite’s three seconds (in addition to Jack and Tiger, he also finished T-2 behind Seve Ballesteros in 1983). Nor was it any of those other half-dozen top-5 finishes. It was his T-6 in ’84, when his lifelong friend Ben Crenshaw won.
“I was the leader through three rounds and had a great chance to win. I played really well on the front nine but was not able to convert the putts I had been making all week. So I opened up the door and Ben did his thing and made some bombs,” he recalled. More than three decades later his voice still holds a note of regret. “That was the most disappointing of all.”
I asked Kite when his belief that he would win the Masters finally faltered.
“When I quit playing there,” he replied. “I finished second in ’97 and my last year playing the PGA Tour was ’99 so, yeah, I had a chance to win almost throughout my entire career.”
He won his lone major – on his 74th try – at the U.S. Open in 1992 at Pebble Beach.
McIlroy carries himself like a man who believes he will win the Masters, too, and perhaps even thinks he should. With good reason, since he’s finished top-10 the last four years without playing anything close to his best. Kite knows from experience that those “should” expectations get weightier with every high finish, but he also grasps something McIlroy and the other young men in a hurry might not yet: He has time.
“It wasn’t until the early ’80s that I started feeling like I had a great chance,” he said. “The first nine or 10 years I was just trying to figure out how to play.”
Golfweek, April 1, 2018.