Meet the Vegas-based star taking the European Tour by storm
Two months ago most of us had never heard of Kurt Kitayama. Then he won by eight at Hardelot’s First Stage and there were a few whispers. At Q School, where he came through in a share of 3rd, he was singled out as one to watch and then, less than three weeks later, he won in Mauritius on just his third European Tour start.
He topped the driving distances that week, was 6th in GIR, was 10.8 for Strokes Gained Putting and he had the least amount of bogeys and the second most amount of birdies. All of which added up to a two-shot win over Matthieu Pavon.
The graduate of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas started out on the Web.com where he played just twice on the weekend and made $14,203 before an improved but still ordinary second season. His mates David Lipsky and Alex Kang suggested that the Asian Tour might be a good fit for him and that’s where he’s spent much of the 2018 season.
Things now, though, are very different for the 25-year-old.
What have the last couple of months been like for you?
Well I’ve played my first rounds in France, Spain, Mauritius and now South Africa. I had never played in Europe before France. I was outside the top 1,000 on the world rankings at the start of the year and now I’m inside the top 200 and have a one-year exemption. Now I’ll be able to play in all the Rolex events, up until last week I hadn’t even had the chance to figure out my schedule after coming through Q School.
What was your mindset going into Q School?
I used my past experience from the Web Q School. In France I had it going and I’ve just kept it going. It was six rounds which is a lot of golf, first physically but more so mentally. You never play six rounds and that was something new.
I play a lot with David Lipsky in Las Vegas and he’s always said great things about the European Tour so it seemed really enticing.
Were you on your own at the finals at Lumine?
I picked up a caddie down there. I did the first two stages with a push cart and was planning on doing the same but someone came up to me and I decided to take him. His guy had missed out on Second Stage so he was looking for a bag.
In Mauritius my brother caddied for me. I’m not sure if that’s going to be a long-term thing, he came in at Hong Kong and was going to do the last four events of the year and we’ll have a discussion to see if he wants to do this or not.
He caddies at Bandon Dunes so he’s good. We used to fight a lot growing up but now things are a lot different.
You make a lot of birdies, has that always been the case?
I used to not be able to shoot low scores but since college I’ve been able to develop and not be afraid of going low. It’s hard to do but it’s just something you break through mentally. At college I shot 19-under in a tournament and it was a case of mentally getting over the hump of going low. I like being aggressive. It worked out at First Stage and I hit a lot of drivers there and when I hit the driver well it gives me a lot more scoring opportunities.
Did you surprise yourself how well you handled everything in Mauritius?
I had never really thought about whether I was ready or not, you don’t until you’re in that position. The whole final round my mind was all over the place and I just tried to stay as calm as possible. Winning First Stage and being right there at Q School so recently really helped, you are just trying to get your card but you’re still trying to win so I could use that in Mauritius.
Who are your peers from the Web.com and back home?
When playing the Web I played almost every practice round with Brian Campbell, who was the low amateur at the 2015 US Open, and Xander Schauffele so it’s been great to see Xander’s success in the past couple of seasons. He is so calm and patient and he played so well to get his card in the first place. His success has helped to make me think that things are attainable.
There are quite a few guys out in Vegas like Aaron Wise, David Lipsky, Alex Kang, who is Danielle’s brother, and John Oda, who I played at college with.
Have you any idea what you are to par since the First Stage of Q School?
No idea, it’s got to be over 60-under for sure, maybe closer to 70, almost 80?
Very good, it’s actually 78. Is the uplift in results a confidence or swing thing?
A bit of both, I made a swing change after the Web season last year but obviously when you start playing well your confidence goes up. When I was missing cuts my confidence dropped dramatically so it’s been quite a bit of both.
Do you work with a psychologist?
What is your favourite country to play golf in Asia?
I really like going to Japan. It’s where my mum’s from so that’s part of my heritage and I love the whole culture there.
Do you speak Japanese?
Hello, goodbye, that’s pretty much it.
Where will you be based in 2019?
In Vegas still, I don’t really have any plans on moving right now. I’ll play a few events and then go back to Vegas. I work with JC Deacon who was the assistant at Nevada when I was there and is now head coach at University of Florida.
What was the plan if things hadn’t not worked out at Q School?
I don’t know, I had a good chance of keeping my card in Asia so I had that to fall back on so that was nice going into Q School knowing that I would have somewhere to play.