- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Booz Allen Classic is experiencing a serious senior moment.

Fifty-five-year-old Tom Kite posted a third consecutive round in the 60s yesterday at Congressional Country Club to reach 10 under and claim a one-stroke lead over an army of high-profile pursuers heading into today’s tournament finale.

“It’s been an awesome three days,” Kite (203) said after positioning himself to become the oldest winner in tour history. Sam Snead won the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open at 52. “Heck, if this was the Champions Tour, they’d be giving me the trophy right now.”

Kite became a lightning rod for criticism in the offseason when, after five years on the Champions Tour, he decided to cash in his one-time top-50 career money exemption for one more year among the PGA Tour’s young stallions.

Why not? thought Kite. Thanks to the outrageous growth among PGA Tour purses in recent years, Kite’s position on the tour’s all-time money list had slipped from third to 44th in the five seasons he had spent on the Champions Tour. If he wanted to use the exemption, it was this season or never.

The portion of the populace that favors graceful sports exits first groaned, then probably secretly grinned when Kite missed the cut in seven of his first nine starts. He came to Congressional with a scoring average (73.02) that ranked 181st out of 185 players on tour and an atrocious season-best finish of a tie for 72nd (Sony Open). He was openly criticized by the media not only for tarnishing his own career but for selfishly stealing field spots from younger, more competitive players.

“Obviously, it gave a lot of the people that thought what I was doing was foolish a lot of ammunition, and they blasted me,” Kite said after a third-round 66 on 7,232-yard, par-71 Old Blue. “Fortunately, I wasn’t doing it for them, I was doing it for me. … I wanted to see if I still had what it takes to play this tour and to contend.”

No matter what happens today, Kite already has answered that question.

He hit 15 greens yesterday and erupted down the stretch with three birdies over the final four holes to recapture not only a little of the magic from yesteryear but also the support of Congressional’s galleries.

“I think the people are really enjoying watching this,” said Kite, who coasted home a 14-footer for birdie on No.18 to edge ahead of a cluster of challengers at 9 under: three-time major champion Ernie Els, defending champion Adam Scott, 1998 Booz Allen champion Stuart Appleby, 1995 PGA Champion Steve Elkington and British stars Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. “I think they are really pulling for me. … Needless to say, I’m enjoying the heck out of it, and I’ll be having a blast out there tomorrow.”

In fact, there’s little pressure on Kite. Nobody expects him to win. Not just because of his senior status but because he’s just a nose in front of what amounts to a full-field assault on a soft Old Blue that’s playing nothing like it did in the 1997 U.S. Open.

An astounding 21 players are separated by just three strokes at the top of the leader board. And most of them aren’t mere tour rank-and-filers. This list of players within three strokes of Kite includes a who’s who of professional golf: Els, Scott, Phil Mickelson (205), Sergio Garcia (205), Davis Love III (206) and Jim Furyk (206).

Given such company, it’s already a shock Kite has the pole position. Not just because of his poor form this season but because the 1992 U.S. Open champion hasn’t led a tournament through 54 holes since 1997 (Greater Greensboro Classic) or won a tournament since 1993 (Bob Hope and Nissan Open).

“It’s a surprise — I wouldn’t lie to you,” Els said after a somewhat sloppy 68. “You know, it’s a great story. I think it’s wonderful. That’s what makes this game so great. You bring a golf tournament to a golf course like this, which is an old classic, and experience is a huge factor.”

It will take a lot more than experience to emerge victorious from a finale that is, for all intents and purposes, an 18-hole sprint. With so many stallions bunched in such a scrum, the winner is likely to need a bundle of birdies, not a passel of patience.

“There’s a lot of guys in there, a lot of great players,” said Els, the natural favorite for today’s finale given his victory at Congressional in the 1997 U.S. Open. “It’s anybody’s golf tournament tomorrow, and you’re probably going to have to go low, maybe really low. … It’s going to be one of those classics.”

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