Golf fans loudly cheered Ben Crenshaw's recent Masters victory, his first at a major tournament. They paid far less heed, however, to Tom Kite in his quest for a similarly long-awaited breakthrough. Yet Kite, who joined the pro tour a year before Crenshaw in 1972, has proved himself a golfer of equal if not greater ability than his former University of Texas teammate. The difference is image. Crenshaw is a sports car compared to Kite, the reliable VW Beetle short on victories, but long on high-finishes.
At the Masters Kite was in contention, but eventually slipped back to a tie for fifth. Then last weekend he mounted a charge with a final round 66, only to finish second behind Nick Faldo, the first Briton to win an American tour event since Tony Jacklin in 1972. Typically Kite came close, but didn't win.
In 13 years on the tour he has collected more than $2 million and had the season's lowest stroke average twice, yet won only six tournaments, about half as many as the dashing Crenshaw. This, plus his unfulfilled quest to win a major (he tied for second in the '83 Masters) has tended to obscure Kite's many achievements.
Basically he is a golfer's golfer, liked and respected within the profession, but far less magnetic than Crenshaw. In 1981 Tom quietly surfaced as the tour's top money winner, a distinction earned the hard way - with only one tournament victory.
Before that, at the 1978 Hall of Fame Classic, he had established himself as a man of integrity. A self-imposed penalty stroke for a seemingly minor infraction cost him a chance at a playoff. The act was acknowledged by the US Golf Association, which made him the recipient of its annual sportsmanship award. Baseball's poets in motion
Carlton Fisk of the Chicago White Sox has always had an unusually delicate-looking home run trot for a catcher, which makes him an all-star of sorts in Frank Coffey's book. Fisk makes the ''graceful team'' in Coffey's small volume ''the All-Time Baseball Teams Book'' (St. Martin's Press).It is a fan's collection of all-star units, some honorable (the home run team) and others not so (the fizzle team).
Coffey admits his graceful picks are open to question, but makes no apologies , claiming each player he's chosen ''brings a smile. . .even a tingle of pleasure.'' Joining Fisk are Gil Hodges (first base); Jerry Coleman (second base); Mark Belanger (shortstop); Brooks Robinson (third base), outfielders Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente; and pitchers Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, and Warren Spahn. Touching other bases
* The reason next Tuesday's National Football League draft has generated so little pre-event interest is because the three biggest names coming out of college have already been signed, sealed, and delivered.Nebraska running back Mike Rozier and Brigham Young quarterback Steve Young are midway through their rookie USFL seasons, and two weeks ago Nebraska receiver Irving Fryar, the No. 1 pick-to-be in the NFL, put his signature on a contract with the New England Patriots. That leaves Houston to mull over whom to select with the second choice. The top candidates are reportedly Nebraska guard Dean Steinkuhler and Michigan State linebacker Carl Banks.
* If the defending NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers should beat the New Jersey Nets tonight, they would become only the second team in league history to bounce back from an 0-2 deficit in a best-of-five playoff series. The Fort Wayne Pistons did it against St. Louis in 1956.
* The leading rebounder on the Denver Nuggets, both this season and last, was 6 ft. 4 in. guard T.R. Dunn. During the regular season he pulled down 574 rebounds, just 13 less than L.A.'s 7 ft. 2 in. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
* With her 6-2, 6-0 victory in last Sunday's Women's Tennis Association Championships, Martina Navratilova ended Chris Evert Lloyd's winning streak on Florida clay at 84 matches. Navra-tilova has now won the last 10 matches in their limp rivalry.