Kurt Kitayama hit two drives OB this weekend. Here’s how he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational anyway
Kurt Kitayama knew right away Saturday. His tee shot on No. 4 was no good.
He to save the swing, pushed his club left on the follow-through, but the damage was done. Immediately his hand came off the club. He barely even watched as his golf ball sailed right and kept going farther right, over the boundary fence.
He walked over to caddie Tim Tucker for another ball.
Kitayama was in the lead by himself in one of the PGA Tour’s biggest events, but he probably wasn’t supposed to win this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That’s no slight on Kitayama, who was twice a runner-up in his rookie season a year ago and finished the season 41st in the FedEx Cup. He also picked up two DP World Tour wins before earning his PGA Tour card by way of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
However, the chasers to start the weekend at Bay Hill included stars like Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas and Matt Fitzpatrick. By the end of Saturday, the list would grow to include Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton.
Through the first three of the PGA Tour’s Designated events, the winners’ list includes just Scheffler and Jon Rahm, the last two times, moving the victor to World No. 1.
A crucial misfire on an otherwise gettable par-5 could have easily led a pro, with little experience winning tournaments at the highest level, to begin to crumble and wilt under the pressure.
Instead, you probably know how the week ended for Kitayama by now.
Back to No. 4 in the third round, or his provisional — now his third shot — he geared back with a 3-wood. He said he tried to put the block out the terrible swing he just made.
“That’s why I went to the 3-wood next shot,” Kitayama said Saturday. “Just to try to forget about it, not think about it, really. Just kind of like— it got away from me. So just an uncomfortable thing.”
He ended up with double on the hole, the only one of the day on 4, and made another bogey on nine. He looked like he was wilting. But the looks were deceiving.
“There’s no giving up,” he said. “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 rallied with four birdies on the back nine, including one on 18 to shoot even and convert his 36-hole lead to a 54-hole one.
But then came Sunday, and it happened again.
This time, Kitayama already had his round rolling. Three birdies had him to 11-under and he opened up a two-shot lead after a strong up-and-down at the brutal par-4 8th.
But on 9, the California native knew it again immediately on the tee.
He smothered his tee shot and It crossed the cart path left of the fairway and ended up about six inches left of it.
Kitayama didn’t find out for sure until after hitting his provisional and walking up to his first tee shot that the path was the out-of-bounds line. Another one OB.
He walked away to his provisional, leaving his first ball behind.
Unlike Saturday however, his third ball wasn’t in very good shape. It was in the left fairway bunker, pinned up against the right side lip. His attempt from 206 yards hit the lip and traveled just 130 yards and settled in the rough 82 yards from the hole.
He made 7, again, but on the par-4 9th, that meant triple and his two-shot lead became a one-shot deficit.
After he putted out, he had a long walk from the green to the 10th tee. That’s when he went to his bagman, Tucker.
“I was putting for triple, and I just told him, I just wanted to let him know how I felt. I still felt comfortable,” Kitayama said Sunday. “I didn’t feel out of place. It was just one bad swing. He kind of backed me up. He said that I know, you look fine. And that helped.”
And the tournament didn’t get away from him. While there was plenty of star power up and down the leaderboard, no one pulled ahead.
Jordan Spieth briefly got to 10-under but sputtered to three bogeys in his last five holes. Rory McIlroy had it to nine-under, but then immediately backed up with back-to-back bogeys. Tyrrell Hatton did the same.
By the time Kitayama made it to the short par-5 16th, the lead had fallen back to him in a logjam at eight-under. He was working a streak of six pars in a row. He knew who he was battling.
“Going into the day you know who is near the top and you just pay attention the whole day,” he said. “You can’t ignore it. You got to know where you’re at and you know who is there and just embrace the whole situation.”
His drive was perfect: 310, down the right side of the fairway, leaving just 190 for his approach. His second found the center of the green giving him an uphill 56-footer for eagle and a chance to pull away.
He rammed it 10 feet by and missed the comebacker for birdie. The opportunity was wasted and now he had to deal with the difficult finishing holes at Bay Hill.
“It was just a hard putt,” he said. “I gave myself a good run at it on the second one. But, I don’t know, at that point, there’s nothing you can do. You see the leaderboard, you know you’re still right there in it, and just focus on the next shot.”
Again, he could have faded into submission, but instead, he knocked it to 14 feet from 217 yards on 17, made the putt and then nearly rolled in a 47-foot birdie putt on 18 for the exclamation point on a one-shot win after the tap in.
Multiple times throughout the week Kitayama dealt with poor swings, bad breaks or missed opportunities, but his demeanor never changed and it paid off with his first PGA Tour victory. He now moves up to No. 19 in the world, a career-high.
“I mean, you’re in an uncomfortable situation and whether it’s on the golf course or off, you just got to deal with it,” Kitayama said. “The pulse is going pretty good still. But just from what I’ve learned in the past few years and being in these situations. I’ve been able to control how I feel a lot better. Especially when it’s coming down 18 like that or hitting a tee ball out of bounds. You just got to let it go. I mean, on 9 today I felt like I did a really good job doing that.”