Kurt Kitayama’s slow, persistent climb reaches the top of the Hill
ORLANDO, Fla. – With the game’s biggest stars in hot pursuit, no one would’ve blamed Kurt Kitayama if he sprinted around Bay Hill Club and Lodge on Sunday afternoon.
Headline names such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, defending champion Scottie Scheffler, plus a handful of other PGA Tour winners, all within striking distance as the Arnold Palmer Invitational reached its backstretch.
“Going into the day, you know who is near the top, and you just pay attention the whole day. You can’t ignore it,” said Kitayama, who after three rounds had spotted himself a one-shot head start, only to watch as five other players grabbed at least a share of the lead during a hectic final round.
A former All-State hoops player in high school and with legs that prompt his buddies to call him “Quadzilla,” Kitayama probably could’ve outrun anyone on this day.
Yet, he forced himself to slow down.
Deep breath after deep breath, Kitayama steadied the ship after a triple bogey to close his front nine. He followed with a slew of hard-fought pars before delivering a go-ahead birdie on his penultimate hole. Then, with two putts and 47 feet between him and his first career Tour victory, Kitayama didn’t just cozy a lag putt to a few feet on Bay Hill’s par-4 finishing hole; he left it on the lip, only a half rotation from falling in.
Still in no rush, Kitayama marked his ball. Only then could he finally exhale.
“Just like a big sigh of relief, really, you know, that this was really happening,” said Kitayama.
Earlier in the week, the PGA Tour unveiled its new designated event model, designed to reward the top players with spots in limited, no-cut fields featuring guaranteed – and exceptionally lucrative – paydays. The elevated tournaments figure to be tough to crack, but as players noted all week, if you can get in them, they can change your life.
Consider Kitayama early proof.
Before he became the first debutant to win at Arnie’s Place since Robert Gamez holed out for eagle to beat Greg Norman in 1990, the 30-year-old Kitayama competed on nearly a dozen professional tours in almost every continent. A true globetrotter – and with a sizable vertical.
“He’s sort of persevered and played wherever he could get starts,” said McIlroy, who could only smile as he watched Kitayama’s winning tap-in from a television screen just outside scoring. “All of a sudden, he’s won one of the biggest events on the PGA Tour.”
And in every sense, Kitayama earned it.
When Kitayama signed with mid-major powerhouse UNLV in 2010, he was hardly a projected Tour winner. A 5-foot-7 freshman on a partial scholarship who could barely break 75, Kitayama was quickly nicknamed “The Project” by his Rebel coaches and teammates.
“I don’t think he was very good at anything,” said J.C. Deacon, the UNLV assistant for Kitayama’s first three seasons before taking his current job as the head coach at Florida. “He just worked so hard. You tell him something to do and he’d be out there for 10 hours doing it. He always outworked what you asked him to do.”
By his senior year, Kitayama was UNLV’s No. 1 player, twice leading the Rebels into match play at the NCAA Championship. That included his sophomore year when Kitayama holed a 7-iron from 208 yards for eagle on his 72nd hole at Capital City Club in Alpharetta, Georgia, that got the Rebels into a playoff.
“He always had an appreciation for big moments,” Deacon added.
Such moments, however, were few and far between once Kitayama turned professional in 2015. He shot 80 in the final round of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School that year and then missed seven of nine cuts on the developmental circuit. He kept his card at Q-School before losing it again in 2017. With no status anywhere and ranked outside the top 1,000 in the Official World Golf Ranking, Kitayama reached out to Deacon, whom he had kept in touch with.
Deacon had been observing from afar, yet he was hesitant to interject himself into Kitayama’s mechanics. But when Kitayama lamented, “Man, I need to find someone to help me,” Deacon finally offered his hand.
“I can help you,” he told Kitayama. “I know exactly what’s going on.”
The key fix, according to Deacon, was simple: Kitayama was hanging too much on his left side and wasn’t turning behind the ball. Once they addressed that, Kitayama lost his funky follow-through, and the results were immediate.
Kitayama began 2018 with three top-4s – on three different lower-level tours – including his first professional victory, on the Asian Developmental Tour. He stormed through DP World Tour Q-School that fall, and then he won in his second start as a member. The next year, he added a second DPWT victory, in Oman.
Lately, Kitayama had been knocking on the door in PGA Tour events. At last year’s Mexico Open, he lost to Jon Rahm by a shot. At the Scottish Open that summer, it was Xander Schauffele clipping him by a stroke. Last fall, McIlroy edged him out at the CJ Cup. And most recently, last month at Pebble Beach, Kitayama was in the mix before a closing 76 dropped him outside the top 25.
“It wasn’t like I felt uncomfortable that week,” Kitayama said of Pebble. “I just felt like a few bad breaks and that kind of got me out of control. Maybe a little bit of emotions.”
Fast forward to Sunday, and Kitayama was staring at another potential disaster. After getting to 11 under through seven holes, he yanked his tee ball at the par-4 ninth out of bounds, by inches, and had to reload. Eventually, he putted out for a triple.
That’s when the newest addition to Kitayama’s team stepped in. Caddie Tim Tucker, who was on Bryson DeChambeau’s bag 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 just their third tournament together, but on the verge of blowing the tournament, Kitayama leaned on the veteran looper.
“I just wanted to let him know how I felt,” Kitayama explained. “I still felt comfortable. I didn’t feel out of place. It was just one bad swing. He kind of backed me up. … He goes, ‘I know, you look fine.’ And that helped.”
Deacon calls Kitayama “one of the best chippers and bunker players that I’ve ever seen,” and adds that his student also has evolved into a “top-20 iron player.” Those skills, along with a mostly improved driver that he switched into on Monday morning, served Kitayama well on a Bay Hill layout that often resembles a U.S. Open, and he hung tough with seven straight pars to begin his back nine, a stretch that he had played in 9 under with 11 birdies the first three rounds.
As the stars floundered – Spieth bogeyed three of his last five, McIlroy Nos. 14 and 15, and Scheffler the closing hole – Kitayama tapped into his experiences playing big money games back home in Las Vegas with the likes of Schauffele and two-time major winner Collin Morikawa.
“The heat doesn’t get to him at all,” said reigning Korn Ferry Tour player of the year, Justin Suh, another Vegas resident.
So, Suh wasn’t the least bit surprised to witness Kitayama step up on the par-3 17th hole and hit what proved to be the game-winner: a 6-iron from 214 yards to 14 feet.
For his heroics, Kitayama moved to No. 19 in the world rankings, a career-best mark.
He also collected the $3.6 million first-place prize. Not bad for a guy whose first win yielded just $58,000, paid full in cash.
And he certainly locked up spots in all the majors and designated events for the near future.
But Kitayama, after years of dreaming about and working toward this moment, looked at it all in much simpler terms.
“Just having this trophy here, you know, that’s the best part,” Kitayama said. “I don’t know, it just feels amazing to finally win.”
While Suh joked about pressuring Kitayama to book them a private jet up to TPC Sawgrass for next week’s Players Championship, it was more likely that Kitayama would instead take his trophy and red alpaca sweater, throw them in a courtesy car along with his golf clubs, and make the two-hour drive north.
Again, he was in no hurry.