I Was There: The 1992 U.S. Open

My view of the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach—I was a photographer for Golf World—sure beat how I’d watched the Open held there 10 years earlier.

In 1982, I was a young sportswriter in Athens, Ga., who had to cover a soccer tournament while the final round was being played. Several times that Sunday, I abandoned my assignment and hustled to a nearby Sears store to watch snippets of the dramatic action on a television in the electronics department as Tom Watson defeated Jack Nicklaus. Let’s just say my soccer story in the Monday paper wasn’t rich with detail.

After years of watching The Crosby each winter, plus the Opens of 1972 and ’82 and the 1977 PGA Championship on TV, the chance to see the iconic Pebble Beach in person was thrilling. I hadn’t been to the Monterey Peninsula before, and I made the drive from the San Francisco airport with the same kind of anticipation I had when traveling to cover my first Masters.

Everyone was psyched with the groupings for the first and second rounds. Nicklaus and Watson, winners of the previous Pebble Opens, were together (with three-time champion Hale Irwin). There was no magic out of those three, though, with Nicklaus and Watson missing the cut. Irwin had a solid start but fell out of contention on Saturday with a 78.

It was as if there were two championships that week—a calm 54 holes followed by one of the most windy days in U.S. Open history. That wasn’t the only dichotomy. Making his pro debut, Phil Mickelson shot 68–81. But Lefty’s up-and-down performance didn’t come close to matching 36-hole leader Gil Morgan’s rollercoaster third round.

I’ve never seen such a mood swing as from Morgan, the quiet Oklahoman with a wonderful golf swing and seven career Tour wins. More than halfway into the ’92 Open, Morgan was in uncharted territory for himself and the event. As he played the early holes on Saturday, the challenge was getting a photo of Morgan with a leaderboard in the frame because when he birdied No. 3, he became the first player in U.S. Open history to reach 10 under. Through No. 7, Morgan was three under for the day, 12 under overall, and had a seven-stroke lead.

Like many, I wondered if Morgan could keep it up. He couldn’t, playing the next seven holes in nine over, including three double bogeys. The amazing thing was that despite a 77, he still led after 54 holes, by one over Mark Brooks, Ian Woosnam, and Tom Kite.

Sunday’s wind was fierce, gusting up to 35 miles per hour, able, as Golf World’s Gary Van Sickle wrote, “to swat golf balls out of the air like badminton shuttlecocks.”

Amid this maelstrom, the 42-year-old Kite, who had done everything but win a major championship, put on the grittiest performance of his life. His even-par 72, on a day when the scoring average exceeded 77 and there were 20 scores in the 80s, was a masterpiece defined by his pitch-in for a birdie on the 107-yard 7th, where the wind was blowing so hard, he’d had to hit a 6-iron.

Kite’s final-round 72 matched his number of major attempts, a record for perseverance until Sergio Garcia won the 2017 Masters in his 74th major. Kite wore a red sweater that Father’s Day, good for pictures on a major Sunday that finally was good to him.