Kurt Kitayama is a golfer with several nicknames.
Arnold Palmer, the golfer known simply as “The King,” would appreciate that Kitayama claimed his namesake event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, grinding out a pair of weekend 72s at Bay Hill Club and Lodge to prevail over a stacked leaderboard for his first PGA Tour title.
“I’ve always dreamed of winning on the Tour and to finally do it, yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” Kitayama said after tapping in for par at 18 and overcoming a triple bogey earlier in the day. “It’s pretty unbelievable, really.”
Indeed, it is, considering that Kitayama, a 30-year-old from Chico, California, took a circuitous route to the winner’s circle, traveling all over the world, playing on tours in China, Asia, Japan, South Africa, and Australia.
“We call him Quadzilla or the Quadfather,” said Xander Schauffele, who plays frequently with Kitayama when they are both home in Las Vegas.
“He’s got really big legs. So I call him Quadz with a Z at the end.”
Asked to name the strength of Kitayama’s game, Schauffele said, “He hits it a mile. He hits it far, putts it well, he does everything good.”
That, however, was hardly the case when he showed up at UNLV in 2011, where they called Kitayama “The Project.”
“I don’t think he was very good at anything,” said J.C. Deacon, men’s golf coach at the University of Florida and Kitayama’s swing coach since 2017.
Back then, Deacon was an assistant at UNLV during Kitayama’s four years there and recalled that Kitayama could barely break 75 upon his arrival. But then-coach Dwayne Knight recognized his potential and loves his grit. “He just worked so hard,” Deacon continued. “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.”
That tenacity and perseverance served Kitayama well when he struggled to earn status on the Korn Ferry Tour and instead went seeking a place to play wherever that happened to take him.
“Not finding success early here was, yeah, it’s disappointing, but it took me somewhere else to grow,” he said. “And it was growing more than just in golf, really. You get to experience the different cultures, travel. I mean, you find yourself in some interesting spots. Places that you probably wouldn’t ever go. So I think just as a person I was able to grow.”
Kitayama slowly established himself in the world of golf, winning twice on the DP World Tour in 2019. In the past two seasons, he’s finished second three times on the PGA Tour, finishing second to World No. 1 Jon Rahm at the Mexico Open, Schauffele, No. 6, at the Scottish Open and Rory McIlroy, who rose to No. 1 at the time, at the CJ Cup. On Sunday, the 54-hole leader buckled but refused to break. Fourteen players were within three shots of the lead coming down the stretch, including four major champions and there was a five-way tie at the top with just three holes to play.
Kitayama built a two-stroke lead with three birdies in his first seven holes, including rolling in a 46-footer at seven. But on the ninth hole, he tugged his tee shot left and it stopped out of bounds by six inches, leading to a triple bogey. It could’ve easily led to a free-fall into oblivion. Instead, on a day at Arnie’s Place where the greens became so baked that players complained of little friction, Kitayama never made another bogey.
Still, this was anyone’s race. Jordan Spieth charged first with four birdies in his first five holes as his trusty putter came alive. He took just 12 putts in his first 11 holes but down the stretch he couldn’t get them to drop. He made three bogeys in a four-hole span starting at 14 and signed for 70 and a tie for fourth.
“I wouldn’t have hit any of the putts differently. I hit my line on every single one of ’em. I misread all four by just barely,” Spieth said.
Rory McIlroy, who won this tournament in 2018, had an inauspicious start with two bogeys but rallied with birdies at Nos. 12 and 13 to take the lead at 9 under. However, he still thought he was one or two strokes behind the lead and tried an aggressive line at the par-3 14th and made the first of consecutive bogeys to slip back.
“As I was walking to the 14th green, I looked behind me at the scoreboard, and I was leading by one. And if I had of known that, I wouldn’t have tried to play the shot that I played on 14, which was unfortunate,” said McIlroy, who shot 70 and missed a 10-foot birdie putt that could have forced a playoff. “Game’s rounding into form for the bulk of the season. Even though I didn’t get the win, I’m still pretty happy with how everything went this week.”
Scottie Scheffler had a chance to regain World No. 1 and defend his second title of the season. One back, he had a wedge in his hand from the fairway at 18 but instead managed to make bogey to finish at 7-under and share fourth.
“I put up a good fight,” Scheffler said. “I didn’t have my best stuff today. I still gave myself a chance.”
So, too, did Englishman Tyrrell Hatton (72) – “I just didn’t have it today on the greens in the end when I kind of needed it most,” he said – and American Harris English (70), who tied for second with McIlroy and recorded his best finish since winning the 2021 Travelers Championship.
“I love playing in U.S. Opens and this is as close to a U.S. Open setup as we play on the PGA Tour,” English said.
The API’s first year as a designated event lived up to the hype and seemed destined to be headed to a wild five- or six-man playoff until Kitayama took care of business. He regrouped after the triple and made seven straight pars. But the last of the bunch was a three-putt from 56 feet at the par-5 16th. Tied for the lead, he stepped up at the 217-yard, par 3 and drilled a 6-iron like it was a Tuesday practice round.
“I just ripped it and it started leaking little right, but I hit it good enough to cover and it was perfect,” said Kitayama, who finished with a 72-hole aggregate of 9-under 279.
He poured in the 14-foot birdie putt and was tagged with his latest nickname, this time from NBC’s Paul Azinger, who described him as a junkyard dog feasting on a bone.
Kitayama had to grind out one more par at 18. As he walked off the tee after pulling his tee shot into the rough, he had the self awareness to realize he was walking too fast.
“I was like, slow down,” he recalled. “J.C. was on the putting green earlier and he said, ‘You know, just relax and just make sure to take some deep breaths and walk slow.’ So I thought of that and I was able to recognize it, luckily, and just kind of calm down.”
Kitayama earned his first Tour title in his 50th career start, banking $3.6 million and improving to No. 19 in the Official World Golf Ranking, the highest position of his career. What a long strange trip it had been to the winner’s circle.
“I think just finding those little successes around the world” he said, “and making it out here, putting myself in those, in contention, you start to really believe in yourself, that you belong out here.”