Kurt Kitayama had come close on more than one occasion to his first win on the PGA Tour prior to the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
He came second to Jon Rahm at the Mexico Open in 2022 and second to Xander Schauffele at the Genesis Scottish Open too.
The two-time DP World Tour winner’s most recent disappointment came at this season’s CJ Cup, finishing one shot behind Rory McIlroy who returned to World No 1 at Congaree.
Now, Kitayama can finally call himself a winner after earning his revenge on McIlroy, but also by beating a host of proven PGA Tour winners and major champions at Bay Hill.
He entered the final round in Florida with a one-shot lead, but all seemed lost when he hit his tee shot out of bounds on the 9th hole.
The eventual triple-bogey didn’t unnerve Kitayama and he stuck around as Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Tyrrell Hatton, Harris English, and Viktor Hovland missed opportunities to take the tournament by the scruff of the neck.
“Just how hard I fought,” Kitayama said when asked what he was most proud of after a grueling last day. “It went south on 9 and all of a sudden, I’m not leading anymore.
“I just fought back hard and I’m proud of myself for that – I told him (his caddie Tim Tucker) that I didn’t feel rattled at all – we’re just going to keep trucking along and we’ll get it back.
“When I got to 11, I saw the scoreboard and I was down two (shots) I think. Then I got to the par-3 14th and I saw I was right there. That’s when things started to kick in and I was still in it.”
Damon Hack of Golf Channel described Kitayama as a “big fish” on the final green and you’d struggle to disagree after the 30-year-old secured his maiden Tour title at one of the most prestigious non-major venues on the schedule.
The decisive moment arguably came on the treacherous par-3 17th hole where Kitayama made a crucial birdie while the rest of his competitors toiled with pars and bogeys.
Despite his drive on the 72nd hole finding the juicy Bay Hill rough, he found the heart of the green from 190 yards and was one inch from rolling in the birdie putt from long range.
McIlroy and English waited in the wings in case any Kitayama mishap led to a playoff, but it became clear that the American was ready to win for the first time since the Oman Open in 2019.
Kitayama comically marked his ball and let his playing partner Hovland finish his round before tapping in and soaking in the victory in front of a crowd who were treated to a classic climax.
Both McIlroy and Scheffler squandered the opportunity to take back the World No 1 spot from Jon Rahm who could only manage a finish in tied 39th.
Kitayama took his first title on his 50th career start and becomes the first player to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational on debut since Robert Gamez in 1990.
In a week dominated by the Tour’s new designated events in 2024, Kitayama took advantage of this week’s elevated status and banked $3.6 million.
43 of the world’s top 50 players will tee it up at the Players Championship next week, vying for the lion’s share of $25 million.
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