Kurt Kitayama didn’t make it easy on himself.
But Kitayama, thanks to a clutch birdie at the 17th and a wild lag-putt at the last, is now a winner on the PGA Tour.
Kitayama weaved through a crowded leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at 9-under, a single stroke ahead of world No. 3 Rory McIlroy and two shots head of No. 2 Scottie Scheffler at Bay Hill.
Kitayama opened the day with a three-shot lead, but saw that disappear completely after making a triple-bogey on No. 9 after he hit his drive out of bounds. It wasn’t until the par-3 17th that Kitayama made a birdie again after sinking a near-14-footer — which gave him the solo lead once more.
“[I’m proud of] how hard I fought,” Kitayama said on NBC. “I went south on nine, and all of the sudden I'm not leading anymore. I just fought back hard, I’m proud of myself for that.”
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 5, 2023
Kitayama’s drive on the final hole, however, landed left off the fairway in very thick rough. He still landed his approach 47 feet away from the cup, and then somehow came just a roll shy of what would have been a ridiculous birdie putt to close the week.
The tap-in par worked just fine.
Kitayama finished his day with an even-par 72, matching his score from Saturday.
"I've always dreamed of winning on the Tour and to finally do it, yeah, it's pretty amazing," he said. "It's pretty unbelievable, really."
It looked like McIlroy was going to take it at one point, especially after a stretch where he posted four birdies in five holes at the turn and then tapped in another one at the par-5 16th. But McIlroy parred in the rest of the way, and just barely missed a birdie putt on the 18th, which had him tied with four others for the lead at the time. He ended the week at 8-under with Harris English.
A win for McIlroy would have moved him to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings for the 10th time in his career and given him his first win on the PGA Tour in 2023.
Jordan Spieth had a chance, too, and even held the solo lead briefly after Kitayama’s triple. Spieth, however, ended his day with three bogeys in his last five holes to get to 7-under on the week. Spieth, Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay and Tyrrell Hatton all finished tied for fourth.
What happened to Jon Rahm?
Jon Rahm picked up right where he left off Thursday at Bay Hill.
That, however, was as good as it got for the Spaniard this week.
After his opening-round 65, Rahm stumbled through the rest of the weekend — which was a strange look for the top-ranked golfer in the world who has absolutely dominated the sport in recent months.
Rahm posted back-to-back 76s and then finished with an even-par 72 on Sunday to finish T39. That’s his worst finish of the season by far, and his only one outside of the top 10.
Rahm entered the week having won five times in his last nine international starts, most recently at the Genesis Invitational two weeks ago in Los Angeles. He jumped back to No. 1 in the OWGR, and nobody could seem to catch him.
Perhaps that’s why, Friday, after ending his round with three bogeys and a double bogey in his final five holes, Rahm didn’t hold back.
“How would I characterize [my round]? What do you think I’m going to say? Excuse my language, but it’s f***ing hard. It’s firm, it’s fast and it’s blowing 30 miles an hour. It’s a very difficult golf course.”
Bay Hill is undoubtedly one of the toughest courses on Tour, and that’s part of why very few people scored well on Sunday. Davis Riley matched the low round of the day with a 6-under 66, and that jumped him up 35 spots on the leaderboard to T8.
Either way, Rahm will have to wait until next week at TPC Sawgrass to try and bounce back at The Players Championship.