PHOTOS: 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational: Kurt Kitayama Holds On, Secures First PGA Tour Win
ORLANDO, Fla. – The sense of relief on Kurt Kitayama’s face said it all.
His 47-foot, 2-inch birdie putt on the 18th green Sunday afternoon at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard hung perilously on the edge of the hole, having rolled just a fraction of an inch too short to disappear into the bottom of the cup. Yet he needed only a par to secure his first PGA TOUR victory, and suddenly, all the close calls the last two years had disappeared. The restless evening sleeping on the lead Saturday night and all the stress brought on by a frenetic final round that saw six different players stake a claim to the lead throughout the afternoon had vanished.
Kitayama scanned the gallery surrounding the iconic 18th at Bay Hill Club & Lodge and couldn’t help smiling. Moments later, he tapped in his TaylorMade with the two red X markings on either side of the red number 3, removed his hat and hugged caddie Tim Tucker.
Now it was official, and his 9-under-par 279 total left him one stroke better than 2018 API champion Rory McIlroy and Harris English. Two strokes behind were former API winners Scottie Scheffler and Tyrrell Hatton as well as Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay. Kitayama, the 30-year-old native of Chico, Calif. had not only prevailed for the first time on the PGA TOUR, but had done so against one of the deepest fields in the Arnold Palmer Invitational’s history.
“I’ve always dreamed of winning on the TOUR and to finally do it, yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” the soft-spoken Kitayama said. “It’s pretty unbelievable, really.
“Lucky enough to have it at a very special place, so that’s a bonus.”
Kitayama had won three times overseas between 2018 and 2019, and on the PGA TOUR had runner-up finishes last season to Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele, then another second-place finish earlier this year to McIlroy.
“I’m really happy for Kurt,” McIlroy said. “He’s been playing well for a while now, and I’m happy to see him get his first win.
“He’s done really well. He’s sort of persevered and played wherever he could get starts, and all of a sudden he’s won one of the biggest events on the PGA TOUR. So good for him.”
Having held the second- and third-round leads outright, Kitayama stayed tough through most of the front nine and was two-under par for the day heading to the ninth tee. A pulled drive out of bounds there led to a triple-bogey 7 and saw him relinquish the lead, but he parred each of the next seven holes. A 13-foot, 8-inch birdie putt on the 17th vaulted him back to the top of the leaderboard all by himself.
On 18, his drive found the primary rough left of the fairway, and he confidently blasted a 189-yard approach shot to the green, still leaving him a healthy distance from the hole needing to get down in two.
“You probably practice the 5- to 10-footers for the win,” Kitayama said. “I was definitely nervous. Just tried to focus on speed, and that was it, and try and blank everything out besides that. When I marked it and walked over to Tim it was just, like, a big sigh of relief that this was really happening.”
2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational Day 3: Kitayama Keeps Lead, Showdown Looms For Final Round
ORLANDO, Fla. – Kurt Kitayama will sleep on a 54-hole lead Saturday night knowing he’ll play in the final group Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. Sleeping soundly, however, may prove difficult given the list of accomplished players hoping to chase him down.
Seeking his first career PGA TOUR victory, the 30-year-old Kitayama birdied two of his final three holes at Bay Hill Club & Lodge for an even-par round in difficult conditions and retained the outright lead for the second straight day. His three-day total of 207 leaves him one stroke ahead of defending champion Scottie Scheffler and World No. 11 Viktor Hovland.
Tyrrell Hatton, the 2020 API champion who tied for second last year with Hovland and Billy Horschel, enters Sunday two strokes off the lead, while the World No. 3, 2018 API winner and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy lurks three shots behind, tied for fifth with Harris English. Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Max Homa – all top-20 players with accomplished resumes – are also in the top 10 and within five strokes of Kitayama.
To say Sunday is teed up to offer a final round filled with dramatics would be an understatement. Kitayama and Hovland will culminate the day as the final tee time at 1:20 p.m.
“I think you just kind of accept it,” Kitayama said when asked how he will handle playing the underdog role amongst so many of golf’s biggest names. “You just look at the leaderboard, the rankings and what they have done. People will probably be cheering for them louder, you know. So there’s nothing I can do. Just embrace it.”
This year’s final-round leaderboard has a similar feel to 2022 when Hovland entered the final round in third place, one shot off the lead, with Scheffler trailing him by a stroke. They played together in the second-to-last group, while McIlroy and Hatton were also in the mix.
“Yeah, should be another fun one,” Scheffler said. “That’s what’s exciting about our new schedule. I think we’re going to have a lot more of this stuff. I’m sure Viktor’s looking to beat me this year and I’m looking to do the same. There’s a lot of talented guys on the leaderboard though. I’m not going to be too focused on anybody else other than myself going into tomorrow. But there are so many talented players out there. It should be a really fun battle.”
Hovland and Hatton tied for the low score of the day on Saturday, both shooting bogey-free rounds of 66.
“I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing – I’ve been hitting a lot of fairways and greens,” Hovland said. “Last year was — I didn’t quite hit it as good as I did earlier in the week. But even then I still feel like I should have won last year if I had a half-decent short game last year. I still hit it good enough to score, but I feel like I’m stroking it well this year.”
With winds gusting up to 25 miles per hour Saturday, 41 of the 72 players who made the cut shot over par. McIlroy was asked whether the conditions reminded him of playing in Europe, where cross winds and slick greens can make scoring conditions difficult.
“I see it more like a U.S. Open,” McIlroy replied. “I think that’s sort of how it feels with the thick rough and the firm greens and just the real tricky conditions.”
Arnold Palmer Invitational Day 2: Kitayama Withstands Wind, Secures Lead Heading into Weekend
ORLANDO, Fla. (FNN) – Kurt Kitayama is still seeking his first PGA TOUR victory, and while the player ranked 46th in the Official World Golf Rankings may not be a household name yet, he has certainly made a name for himself against one of the deepest fields in the history of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
Kitayama carded a 4-under-par 68 in blustery conditions Friday at Bay Hill Club & Lodge to climb to the top of the leaderboard, two strokes ahead of three-time major champion Jordan Spieth. World No. 6 Xander Schauffele and Corey Conners sit one stroke behind Spieth, while Davis Riley, World No. 4 Patrick Cantlay and 2022 major winners Justin Thomas and Matt Fitzpatrick are tied for fifth heading into the weekend.
“I think I’ve put myself in good spots,” Kitayama explained. “Right now I feel like I’m just trying to get that win and, you know, it’s tough, especially with the guys I’ve been against. So I’ve just got to keep putting myself in that position to give myself a chance.”
Kitayama, 30, has won three times internationally since turning pro in 2015. In his first full season on the PGA TOUR last year he had two runner-up finishes, and notched another second at the CJ Cup in South Carolina earlier this season. He knows he has knocked on the door enough and hopes this is the week he barges through.
“It definitely gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I’m able to stay with ’em. You get a couple good breaks and it’s your tournament, really. So I’ve just got to try to be right up there until the end.”
Kitayama played remarkably steady golf Friday despite winds gusting up to 30 miles per hour and firm, fast greens. He birdied the first hole with an 18-foot putt, then added four more circles on his scorecard against only one bogey.
Another highlight Friday came from Viktor Hovland, who made a hole-in-one on the 183-yard seventh hole. It was the fourth career PGA TOUR ace for the 25-year-old Norwegian.
The second round was suspended due to darkness with two players left on the course. Play will resume at 7 a.m. ET on Saturday.
2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational Day 1: Rahm Roars to First-Round Lead
ORLANDO, Fla. – Jon Rahm just proved once again why he is the hottest golfer on the planet. The World No. 1 surged to the finish on Thursday with a late eagle and birdie binge that rocketed him to the top of the leaderboard following the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
The FedExCup points leader and winner of three of his last five PGA TOUR events started strong with birdies on each of his first three holes at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. And his finish was even better as he played the final three holes in four under par, resulting in a first-round 65. He will take a two-stroke lead over Chris Kirk, Cameron Young and Kurt Kitayama into Friday’s second round.
Defending champion and World No. 2 Scottie Scheffler shot 68, putting him in a tie for fifth with World No. 4 Patrick Cantlay, World No. 6 Xander Schauffele and five other players.
“I had a lot of good looks for birdie – I played really good golf today and I took advantage of the three or four missed opportunities, missed fairways and greens really, really well,” Rahm said.
Rahm has finished top 10 in all six official PGA TOUR events he has played during the 2022-23 season, including victories at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, The American Express and the Genesis Invitational. Thursday, he lurked near the top of the leaderboard before draining a 24-foot eagle putt on 16, hitting his tee shot on the par-3 17th inside three feet for an easy birdie and knocking his approach shot on 18 within six feet, which he converted for another birdie to secure the low round of the day.
“I think the only difference between some of my rounds last year and this one was just putting, Rahm said. “I don’t think in four days I made a single putt out here last year. And I made my fair share today. I’ve been putting a lot better this year. But from good putting to bad putting is the smallest difference imaginable. Especially on these greens. These greens can get difficult very quick.”
Rahm tees in Friday’s second round at 7:38 a.m., grouped with Schauffele and World No. 10 Collin Morikawa off the 10th tee.
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