Kurt Kitayama holds off elite names at Arnold Palmer Invitational
Orlando, Fla. — The way the final-round leaderboard started and the way it unfolded on a steamy Sunday at Bay Hill, Kurt Kitayama was the last player most people expected to fit the traditional red cardigan sweater of “The King.” . Best known as the winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
In hot pursuit, just behind Kitayama’s tenuous 54-hole one-shot lead, entering the day were some of the sport’s biggest stars.
Defending champion Scotty Scheffler, the No. 2 ranked player in the world, was there. So, too, was Rory McIlroy, the No. 3 seed and 2018 winner of the tournament.
Then there were Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantley, young up-and-comer Victor Hovland and Tyrell Hatton, the 2020 API champions.
When Kitayama triple bogeyed the ninth hole to turn his two-shot lead into a one-shot deficit thanks to his tee shot rolling just 6 inches to the left of the cart path and out of bounds, everyone expected (except Kitayama) was that he would drop down the leaderboard and hand over to one of the stars.
Kitayama, after all, was chasing his first PGA Tour victory in his 50th start. And something as disturbing as the mess he made at No. 9 is usually the death knell for a player not experienced in those high-stress situations.
But a funny thing happened near the end of the tournament as six different players held at least a share of the lead in a frantic final round: If Kitayama didn’t pull himself together after No. 9, settle down. Go and conquer. tournament
“I’ve always dreamed of winning on tour and to finally do it, it’s so amazing, so unbelievable, really,” he said immediately after the victory, looking far more overwhelmed than he had looked while playing. was visible and in sound. The most important period of his life.
In the end, Kitayama, who has played 103 tournaments in 11 other tours around the world and won three times, held off McIlroy and Harris English by one shot as he finished 8-under at 9-under. Scheffler, Spieth, Cantley and Hatton finished two back at 7 under.
The list of tours that Kitayama has played on includes the European Tour, Canadian Tour, Australian Tour, Australian Tour, Asian Development Tour, Sunshine Tour in South Africa, Japan Tour, Korean Tour, Korn Ferry Tour and now the PGA Tour. .
Those experiences made 30-year-old Kitayama, who hails from Aaron Rodgers’ hometown of Chico, Calif. is a resident of, made it tough to face the heat on Sunday.
“Every different country you travel to, you’re dealing with logistics, food, culture, language,” he said. “So, it’s tough outside of golf. It helps you grow as a person and when you get into situations like this…
After the incident on the ninth, Kitayama made seven consecutive pars until he reached the treacherous par-3 17th, which offers a long tee shot over water to a green well through bunkers.
He holed a 6-iron to 14 feet and made the birdie putt to take the lead at 9-under.
And he will not lose it.
The walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee is a long walk to the back of the practice range, and on that walk, Kitayama told his caddy, Tim Tucker, “I don’t feel any discomfort at all.”
Tucker, who caddies for Bryson DeChambeau, told him, “Yeah, we’ll take it back.”
After a birdie on 17 gave him a one-shot lead with one hole to play, Kitayama hit his tee shot into the thick, lush left fairway, leaving himself 158 yards to the flag.
He hit an 8-iron to the center of the green 47 feet from victory.
Kitayama’s leg putt for birdie came to rest on the edge of the hole, with part of the ball looking down into the cup.
He marked it with a quarter and that’s when the gravity of the moment hit him. His world ranking was coming in at 19th and he was now at the Masters, British Open, PGA Championship.
His life as he knew it was changing before his eyes.
“When I marked it and went to Tim and [it was] Like a big sigh of relief, really … that it was really happening,” Kitayama said.
When it was over, the world’s top players he stopped were quick to praise Kitayama, as they are all aware of the tough journey he took on Sunday.
“I’m really happy for Kurt,” McIlroy said. “He’s been playing well for a while now, and I’m happy to get him his first win. Curt did really well to hang on to that back nine. He’s determined and plays wherever he can start, and suddenly he’s won one of the biggest events on the PGA Tour. So, good for him.”