ORLANDO, Fla. — Kurt Kitayama only had to look around at the players next to him in the practice area and right below him on the leaderboard at Bay Hill to know what he was up against March 5 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“You can’t ignore it. You got to know where you’re at and you know who is there and just embrace the whole situation, I guess,” Kitayama said after a final two hours of pure theater for his first PGA Tour win.
He got the result he desperately wanted in a fashion he never imagined.
First came the wild tee shot that sailed out-of-bounds on the ninth hole that led to triple bogey and let an All-Star cast — Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Scottie Scheffler, Tyrrell Hatton and Harris English — back into the tournament.
And then the 30-year-old Californian, who has played on 11 tours around the world to hone his game, delivered the winner.
Part of a five-way tie for the lead with three holes to play, he drilled a 6-iron to just inside 15 feet on the par-3 17th and holed it for birdie to take the lead. From the gnarly rough left of the 18th fairway, he gouged an 8-iron onto the green to 50 feet. Needing two putts to win, the first one stopped an inch from the cup.
The tap-in for an even-par 72 was the easiest shot he faced all day, giving him a one-shot win over McIlroy and English.
The soft-spoken Kitayama was due. Over the last year he finished one shot behind to Jon Rahm in Mexico, to Xander Schauffele in Scotland, to McIlroy in South Carolina.
This time, he beat them all.
“I think just a little bit of luck finally went my way,” Kitayama said. “When it’s that close at the top, that’s what you need. Anyone probably could have won it. Luckily, it just happened to be me.
He finished at 9-under 279 and earned $3.6 million, moving to No. 19 in the world.
“It went south on 9,” Kitayama said. “All of a sudden, I’m not leading any more. I just fought back hard, and I’m proud of myself for that.”
Of the top seven players, all of them have either won majors or played in the Ryder Cup. The exception is Kitayama, who groomed himself for a moment like this with so many close calls against players with polished pedigrees.
Kitayama, who played at UNLV, didn’t find much success on the Korn Ferry Tour and took his trade overseas to the Asian Tour and European tour, along with stops in Canada, South Africa, China, Korea, Japan, the PGA Tour of Australasia and the Asian Development Tour.
Now he has a red cardigan for winning at Arnie’s place and a big feather in his cap for the players he had to beat.