Kurt Kitayama knew what he was up against on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational by looking at the players next to him in the practice area and right below him on the leaderboard at Bay Hill.
“You can’t ignore it. I guess you have to know where you are and who is there and just accept the whole thing “Kitayama said that the last two hours of his first PGA Tour win were just pure entertainment.
He got the result he really wanted, but not in the way he expected.
First, a wild tee shot on the ninth hole went out of bounds. This led to a triple-bogey, which let Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Scottie Scheffler, Tyrrell Hatton, and Harris English back into the tournament.
Then the 30-year-old Californian hit the winning shot. He has played on 11 tours around the world to improve his game.
Five people were tied for the lead with three holes left, but he hit a 6-iron to within 15 feet on the par-3 17th, made a birdie, and took the lead. He hit an 8-iron from the rough on the left side of the 18th fairway to 50 feet from the green. The player needed two putts to win, and the first one stopped about an inch from the hole.
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The tap-in for an even-par 72 was the easiest shot he had all day, giving him a one-shot win over McIlroy and English.
The quiet Kitayama deserved it. In the last year, he finished one shot behind Jon Rahm in Mexico, Xander Schauffele in Scotland, and McIlroy in South Carolina.
He beat everyone this time.
Kitayama said, “I think just a little bit of luck finally went my way.” “When the top is that close, that’s what you need. Most likely, anyone could have won it. It was lucky that it was me.”
He finished with a score of 9-under-279, earned $3.6 million, and moved up to 19th place in the world.
McIlroy roared into contention with four birdies in five holes around the turn. He then took a shot he didn’t need because he didn’t realise he was tied for the lead on the 14th. He then missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the last hole and shot 70.
English had an amazing weekend at Bay Hill, where they didn’t make a single bogey. On the last hole, he missed an 18-foot birdie putt, so he got a score of 70.
“I know Kurt more from things related to his European tour,” McIlroy said. “But he’s done a great job. He kept trying and played wherever he could, and now all of a sudden he’s won one of the biggest PGA Tour events. So that’s great.”
Scheffler was only a foot away from a birdie on the 18th hole and a chance to take the lead. Instead, his ball spun back into the rough, his chip was weak, and he finished with a bogey for a 73.
Scheffler said, “I wish I had played a little bit better, but at the end of the day, I put up a good fight.” “But Kurt did a great job at golf today. I think it’s pretty cool to finish with a birdie on 17 and a par on 18 and still win by one.”
In the last two hours, Spieth was one of six players who had at least a share of the lead. From the 14th to the 17th holes, he missed four straight putts within 8 feet, three of them for par. After making a 15-foot putt for a birdie on the 13th hole to take the lead, he played the last five holes in 3 over.
“I wouldn’t have done anything different with any of the putts,” Spieth said. “I hit my target on every single one. I almost got all of them wrong.”
Hatton (72), Scheffler (70), and Patrick Cantlay (68) all finished two shots behind Spieth.
Mostly because of one swing, they all had a chance. Kitayama was ahead by two shots when, on the ninth hole, he hit a wild hook out of bounds, which led to a triple-bogey.
Kitayama said, “It went south on 9.” “Suddenly, I’m not in charge anymore. I just fought back hard, which is something I’m proud of.”
The finish kept everyone guessing, especially when there was a five-way tie for the lead late in the round and each player was just one swing or put away from winning.
McIlroy said, “I felt it on the golf course, so I’m sure it was fun to watch.” “It’s hard because the lead kept switching hands because people were making bogeys instead of birdies. So I don’t understand how people find that funny.
“But the back nine was great. It was great to take part in. I’m thrilled for Kurt. He’s been playing well for a while, so I’m glad to see him get his first win.
All seven of the best players have either won a major tournament or played in the Ryder Cup. Kitayama is the one exception. He has had a lot of close calls against good players, which has helped him get ready for this moment.
Kitayama, who played at UNLV, didn’t have much success on the Korn Ferry Tour, so he went overseas and played on the Asian Tour, European Tour, PGA Tour of Australasia, Asian Development Tour, South Africa, China, Korea, and Japan.
Now he has a red cardigan and a big feather in his cap because he won at Arnie’s place and had to beat other players.