Kurt Kitayama Takes Down A Group Of Goliaths To Win A WILD Arnold Palmer Invitational
What a fucking tournament that was. Bay Hill always delivers the goods. Year after year this back 9 is pure chaos and gives us a close finish despite never ending in a playoff. The Arnold Palmer Invitational is weirdly allergic to playoffs. Not since Lumpy won this back in '99 has it ended in a playoff, while the winning margin has been 1 shot thirteen times since then, including 8 of the last 10.
Throughout the chaotic back 9, this one looked destined for bonus golf. Tons of big time names were in the mix. We're talking Rory. Defending champion Scheffler. Vintage rollercoaster Spieth. Young gun Viktor Hovland. Recent FedEx Cup champ Patrick Cantlay. Perennial APi contender Tyrell Hatton. 2021 Ryder Cup winner Harris English. All of these guys were within a shot of the lead on their last 3 holes with a chance to make something happen, and it was Kurt Kitayama who took the tournament by the balls and toppled all of them to earn his first PGA Tour victory.
Now, I certainly just painted the picture that Kitayama is a complete unknown, and to the casual golf fan that's pretty true. But this isn't quite Ben Curtis at Royal St. George's. Kurt came into this tournament ranked 46th in the world. He's not a total slouch. He's sniffed around that first win a few times, most notably at last year's Scottish Open and the CJ Cup in the fall.
But there was still that air of "well, this guy is gonna fall off at some point" and it certainly looked like it happened on the 9th today. Kitayama was 2 clear of the field when he hooked one left off the tee, ending up this far out of bounds
That led to a triple bogey and a brief solo stint at the top of the leaderboard by Spieth, who came out of the gate firing with birdies on 4 of his first 5 holes. Bogeys by Spieth on 14, 15 and 17 would ultimately doom Spieth, while Kitayama clawed his way back little by little on the back 9 when it looked like everybody but him would pull it out.
Meanwhile all these other big dogs duked it out on what's always a challenging final set of holes, outside of the gettable par 5 16th. Rory stood on the 14th tee with the solo lead and promptly hooked his tee shot into the left greenside bunker and failed to get up and down. Scheffler had numerous looks on the last 3 holes and narrowly missed. Hatton had big time opportunities. Hovland stood in the fairway on 16th with as good a chance as anyone and fatted a 9-iron into the drink. It was absolute mayhem. It felt like the broadcast was jumping from one monumental putt to another with 5 guys at -8 and another half dozen at -7, and nobody seemed to want to go out and steal it.
Until Kurt stepped to the tee on 17. Ferocious par 3 that I think anyone would sign for a par if given the chance and he hits a beauty to about 12 feet and buries it
And lemme tell ya… his standard bearer was FIRED UP
That gave him the 1-shot lead at -9 on the 18th tee after Rory and English each missed good looks at birdie to match that number for the clubhouse lead. Kitayama tugged his tee shot into the left rough, but his new caddie Tim Tucker (who won this tournament in 2021 with Bryson) calmly talked him through the approach and guided him towards a smart play to the left-middle of the green. From there, Kitayama just needed a 2-putt from 47 feet for the win.
I mean… how does that no go?! Hilarious that he threw a coin on it though
What a win for Kitayama on a huge stage. Vaults him all the way up to 19th in the world and obviously he gets that fat $3.6M check.
The "elevated" events have really delivered the last few weeks with an incredible mix of star-studded leaderboards and those great underdog stories that make the Tour so great. At Scottsdale we had Nick Taylor scrapping his way to the very end with Scheffler holding off him, Rahm, JT, and Day. Riviera brought us a great duel between Rahm and Homa. The back 9 here was as fun and wild a Sunday as I can remember with a great breakthrough by a worthy champion who easily could have packed it in after a triple bogey. PGA Tour has to be thrilled with where things are at with their flagship event on deck.
Congrats to Kurt Kitayama, plenty more where that came from.