Kurt Kitayama’s slow, persistent climb reaches the top of the Hill
ORLANDO, Florida. The game’s biggest stars are in hot pursuit, and no one would blame Kurt Kitayama if he raced around the Bay Hill Club and Lodge on a Sunday afternoon.
Big names like Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, defending champion Scotty Sheffler, as well as several other PGA Tour winners are all within reach as the Arnold Palmer Invitational peaked.
“Going into the day you know who’s on top and you just pay attention all day long. You can’t ignore it,” said Kitaema, who remarked after three rounds that he had a one-shot lead, only to see five other players steal at least part of the lead in a hectic final round.
A former high school basketball player with legs that make his buddies call him “Quadzilla”, Kitayama could probably outrun anyone on this day.
However, he forced himself to slow down.
Full results at the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Deep breath after deep breath, Kitayama stabilized the ship after the triple scarecrow to close the front nine. He followed it up with a lot of hard pars before bouncing on the penultimate hole. Then, with two strokes and 47 feet between him and his first career Tour win, Kitayama wasn’t just a few feet behind on the par-4 finish hole of Bay Hill; he left it on his lip, only half a turn from falling.
Still taking his time, Kitaema marked his ball. Only then could he finally exhale.
“Like a big sigh of relief, you know it really happened,” Kitaema said.
Earlier this week, the PGA Tour unveiled its new special event model designed to reward the best players with no-cuts restricted field seats with guaranteed and exceptionally lucrative payout days. Tournaments at higher levels are hard to hack, but as players have noted throughout the week, if you can enter them, they can change your life.
Consider Kitayama’s early proof.
Before he became the first debutant to win at Arnie’s Place since Robert Gamez wrestled for the eagle to defeat Greg Norman in 1990, the 30-year-old Kitayama had been on nearly a dozen professional tours on nearly every continent. A real traveler – and with a significant vertical.
“He was persistent and played wherever he could start,” said McIlroy, who could only smile as he watched Kitayama’s game-winning shot from the TV screen next to the scoring. “All of a sudden he won one of the biggest events on the PGA Tour.”
And in every way, Kitayama deserved it.
When Kitayama signed with UNLV in 2010, he was unlikely to be the presumed winner of the Tour. A 5’7″ freshman on a partial scholarship and barely 75 years of age, Kitayama was quickly nicknamed “The Project” by his coaches and Rebel teammates.
“I don’t think he was good at anything,” said J.C. Deacon, UNLV’s assistant during Kitayama’s first three seasons before taking his current position as Florida head coach. “He just worked so hard. You tell him to do something and he will do it for 10 hours. He always did what you asked him to do.
By his senior year, Kitayama was UNLV’s #1 player, having led the Rebels twice in match play for the NCAA championship. Including in his sophomore year, when Kitaema hit a 7-iron from 208 yards for an eagle on his 72 yards.th a hole in the Capital City Club in Alpharetta, Georgia that took the Rebels to the playoffs.
“He always appreciated the important moments,” Deacon added.
However, those moments were few and far between when Kitayama turned pro in 2015. That same year, he threw 80 shots in the final round of the Korn Ferry Tour Q-School and then missed seven of nine cuts on the development cycle. He kept his card at Q-School before losing it again in 2017. With no status anywhere and not ranked in the top 1000 in the official world golf rankings, Kitayama approached Deacon, with whom he kept in touch.
Deacon watched from afar, but did not dare to interfere with Kitayama’s mechanics. But when Kitayama complained, “Dude, I need to find someone to help me,” Deacon finally extended his hand.
“I can help you,” he said to Kitayama. “I know exactly what’s going on.
The key fix, according to Deacon, was simple: Kitaema hung too much on his left side and didn’t turn around for the ball. Once they addressed it, Kitaema lost its funky follow-up and the results were immediate.
Kitayama started 2018 with three top 4s – on three different lower-level tours – including his first pro win on the Asian Development Tour. He stormed the Q-School DP World Tour that fall and then won his second start as a competitor. The following year, he took his second DPWT victory in Oman.
Recently, Kitayama has been knocking on the door at PGA Tour events. At last year’s Mexican Open, he lost to John Rahm by throw. That summer at the Scottish Open, Xander Schauffele clipped him with a stroke. Last fall, McIlroy overtook him at the CJ Cup. And most recently, last month at Pebble Beach, Kitaema was in the spotlight before a final 76 knocked him out of the top 25.
“It’s not that I felt uncomfortable that week,” Kitayama said of Pebble. “I just felt like I had a few bad breaks and it got me out of control. Maybe a little emotion.”
Fast forward to Sunday and Kitaema was looking at yet another potential disaster. After hitting 11 down after seven holes, he yanked his ball off the tee on the ninth par-4 by a few inches and had to reload the ball. In the end, he turned down the three.
It was then that a new addition joined the Kitayama team. Caddy Tim Tucker, who was in Bryson DeChambeau’s luggage when he won the API two years ago, was caddying at Bandon Dunes with Kitayama’s brother, Daniel, when he got the call from Kitayama. This is only their third tournament together, but Kitaima was on the verge of a tournament crash and relied on an experienced looper.
“I just wanted him to know how I feel,” Kitayama explained. “I still felt comfortable. I didn’t feel out of place. It was just one bad hit. He seemed to support me … He says: “I know you look good.” And it helped.”
Deacon calls Chinamu “one of the best chipper and bunker players I’ve ever seen”, and adds that his student has also developed into “a top 20 railroad player”. Those skills, along with the mostly improved rider he switched on Monday morning, served Kitayama well on the Bay Hill circuit that often resembles the US Open, and he held on tight with seven straight pairs to start his back nine, stretch, which he played 9 under with 11 birds for the first three rounds.
While the stars were floundering – Spit was scaring three of his last five, McIlroy #14 and 15, and Scheffler was closing the hole – Kitayama used his experience playing for big money at home in Las Vegas with the likes of Schauffele and the two-time major. Winner Colleen Morikawa.
“He’s not affected by the heat at all,” said current Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year Justin Su, another Vegas resident.
So Su was not at all surprised to see Kitayama climb to par-3 17.th hole and hit what turned out to be the winner of the game: a 6-iron from 214 yards to 14 feet.
For his heroism, Kitaema climbed to 19th place in the world rankings, the best result in his career.
It also received a $3.6 million first place prize. Not bad for a guy whose first win brought in just $58,000, all paid in cash.
And I certainly reserved places in all majors and outlined events for the near future.
But Kitayama, after years of dreaming and working on this moment, saw it all much more simply.
“You know, just having this trophy here is the best part,” Kitaema said. “I don’t know, it’s just amazing to finally win.”
While Su joked about pressuring Kitayama to book them a private jet to TPC Sawgrass for next week’s Players Championship, it’s more likely that Kitayama will instead take his trophy and red alpaca sweater, throw them into a utility vehicle. along with your golf clubs. and take a two-hour drive north.
Again, he was in no hurry.