Kurt Kitayama survives Bay Hill, wins Arnold Palmer Invitational for first PGA Tour title

Kurt Kitayama of the United States waves after making birdie on the seventh green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard at Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Golf Course on March 05, 2023 in Orlando, Florida.

Kurt Kitayama rose from a crowded leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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For the second day in a row, Kurt Kitayama snap-hooked a tee shot out of bounds.

On Sunday on the 9th hole at Bay Hill, the second-year PGA Tour member was just 6 inches out of bounds. He made triple bogey.

At that point, he went from being two ahead of Jordan Spieth to trailing by one.

But just like the day before, Kitayama steadied himself on the back nine. He rallied with two birdies against no bogeys on the inward side to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational by one at nine-under for his first PGA Tour victory.

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“It was really hard. I’m going to sleep really well tonight,” Kitamaya said after the win. “It’s everything I kind of mentally prepared myself for. It was pretty much as hard as I expected.

“I’ve always dreamed of winning on the Tour and to finally do it, yeah, it’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty unbelievable, really.”

Kitayama gained ground on the backside as many of the other players crumbled. Rory McIlroy made a Sunday charge but just fell short when his 10-foot birdie putt on 18 just slid low. McIlroy finished tied for second with Harris English, needing a win to regain World No. 1.

Scottie Scheffler also had a chance to defend his title from a year ago, heading into the final holes part of a logjam at eight-under that included Kitayama, McIlroy, English, Tyrrell Hatton and Jordan Spieth. Scheffler left himself a great opportunity on the 18th from the fairway on the difficult par-4 18th, but his approach came up short, barely clearing the water and he failed to even make par.

Spieth meanwhile looked to take control of the tournament when he hit his third on the par-5 16th to inside six feet. But for the third time in three holes, the three-time major winner failed to convert from short range and settled for par. He bogeyed 17 (his third in four holes) and stumbled home to a T4 finish at seven-under.

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“Going into the day you know who is near the top and you just pay attention the whole day,” Kitayama said. “You can’t ignore it.”

While the big names around him faltered, Kitayama was just finding his stride. The 30-year-old birdied the 17th from 14 feet and after finding the green from the left rough on 18, his 47-footer just barely stopped on the front lip of the cup. He marked and then tapped in for his second straight 72 of the weekend.

Kitayama gets the better of McIlroy, having finished second to him five months ago at the CJ Cup in South Carolina.

With the win, Kitayama nearly doubles his career earnings, taking home $3.6 million after earning nearly $4.2 million in his previous 49 PGA Tour starts.

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