A major-like test, World No. 1 up for grabs and more: 3 things to watch for Arnold Palmer Invitational final round
In a field full of star power at the PGA Tour’s fourth Designated event of the season, Kurt Kitayama leads the way through three rounds at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, seeking his first Tour win.
Kitayama birdied the difficult 18th hole at Bay Hill Club and Lodge Saturday to claim the solo lead and set up what should be a spectacular Sunday in Orlando.
Here are three storylines we’re watching for the final round:
Can Kitayama prevail over stars?
Kurt Kitayama has three second-place finishes in his PGA Tour career. They’ve all come in the past year for the 30-year-old and they’ve all come against some of the top players in the game.
Last May, he finished tied for second to Jon Rahm ad the Mexico Open at Vidanta. In July, he was solo runner-up to Xander Schauffele at the Genesis Scottish Open. And then earlier this season, in October he duked it out with Rory McIlroy before finishing second again at the CJ Cup.
If he’s finally able to buck the trend this week at Bay Hill, he’ll have to face the boatload of multi-time PGA Tour winners, Ryder Cuppers and other accomplished stars in this week’s leaderboard.
Kitayama birdied two of the final three holes Saturday to regain the solo lead he started the round with at nine-under. His third round looked like it was going off the rails when he lost his tee ball out of bounds on the fourth hole, making double, but he made his first birdie of the day on 10. He shot 33 on his second nine to post even for the day and finish at nine under.
“There’s no giving up,” Kitayama said after the round. “It’s just kind of in my nature, I feel like. Even when it’s going bad, you can’t just like pack it in. You fight for every shot.”
He’ll have to fight for every shot Sunday because, behind him, he has defending champion Scottie Scheffler and Viktor Hovland one back. Two back is Tyrell Hatton and three back is Rory McIlroy. At five-under and four shots back are Netflix’s Full Swing Ep. 1 co-stars and multi-major champions Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.
He said he has no choice but to accept his underdog role, despite holding the lead.
“You just look at the leaderboard, the rankings and what they have done,” Kitayama said. “People probably cheering for them louder, you know. So there’s nothing I can do. Just embrace it.”
Add to the challenge for Kitayama that Bay Hill is playing as a major championship-like test this week. With winds kicking up in the afternoon, no player in the last five groups broke par Saturday, allowing earlier finishers like Hovland and Scheffler to climb back into the tournament.
Winds are not forecasted to increase to the same speeds Sunday.
Rahm leaves door open for World No. 1
The game of musical chairs between Scheffler, McIlroy and Jon Rahm continues this week with both of the former players having a chance to usurp the latter as tops in the sport.
Rahm actually made it much easier for the pair the last two days, carding his second-consecutive four-over 76 Saturday after grabbing the first-round lead by two with a 65 Thursday.
As Rahm was sputtering, Scheffler and McIlroy pounced on the opportunity, each shooting 68 on Saturday to get to eight- and six-under, respectively.
With Rahm currently tied for 44th, there’s a strong possibility Scheffler or McIlroy could jump back to World No. 1 with a win or second-place finish.
According to the Twitter account and OWGR guru Nosferatu, Scheffler can ascend back to No. 1 after just a two-week break with a win and Rahm not finishing runner-up. Scheffler can also move back to the top with a two-way tie for second and Rahm finishing outside the top 25.
McIlroy’s math is simpler, as he needs to win and hope Rahm can’t rally to finish in a tie for 5th or better.
The amateur and the rookie
In a bid to become the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson in 1991, Texas Tech’s Ludvig Aberg is T12 heading into Sunday at three-under. He’s in the field this week having been voted by his peers as the player most deserving of the exemption at last year’s Palmer Cup.
“I think that the more of these events you play, the easier it’s going to get,” the Swede said Friday after back-to-back 70s to open the tournament. “It gives me a lot of knowledge about myself. Because obviously, it exposes your game a lot more than a regular event does. We’re playing greens that are rolling very fast. Then you got wind and you got a tough golf course. So it teaches you more about your game. I just try to enjoy it, try to embrace it and take in as much as I can.”
Aberg currently leads the PGA Tour U Rankings, meaning he’ll earn membership on the PGA Tour by the end of the college season if he maintains his position. Last year’s leader, Pierceson Coody, is also in the field this week on a sponsor’s exemption and making the most of it.
The Korn Ferry Tour player is T7 with Spieth and Thomas at five-under after tying the low round of the day Saturday with a 66. He finished earlier in the day and was hoping the lead wouldn’t go much further out as conditions got harder.
“Panama on the Korn Ferry Tour [last month] when I won I had a great final round, similar to that round, where I just cruised in, didn’t think much of it and ended up in a really good spot,” Coody said. “It would be nice if the leaders didn’t do too much today and I could give myself a chance to do that one more round tomorrow.”
He got his wish and starts the final round four back.