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.”