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 Sunday 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 is 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.
McIlroy roared into the mix with four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the turn, took on a shot he didn’t need because he didn’t realize he was tied for the lead on the 14th and ultimately missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole and shot 70.
English remarkably went bogey-free on brittle Bay Hill for the entire weekend. He missed an 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole for a 70.
“I know Kurt more from European tour stuff,” McIlroy said. “But he’s done really well. He’s persevered and played wherever he could get starts and all of a sudden he’s won one of the biggest events on the PGA Tour. So good for him.”
Scheffler was a foot away from having a close look at birdie on the 18th and a chance to take the lead. Instead, his ball spun back into the rough, his chip came out weakly and he finished with a bogey for a 73.
“I wish I played a little bit better, but at the end of the day I put up a good fight,” Scheffler said. “But Kurt played fantastic golf today. I think to birdie 17 and par 18 to finish and win by one is pretty special.”
Spieth was among six players who had at least a share of the lead over the final two hours. He missed four straight putts inside 8 feet from the 14th through the 17th holes — three of them for par. After taking the lead with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole, he played his last five holes in 3 over.
“I wouldn’t have hit any of the putts differently,” Spieth said. “I hit my line on every single one of them. I misread all four by just barely.”
Spieth (70), Scheffler Patrick Cantlay (68) and Hatton (72) all finished two shots behind.
They all had a chance, mostly because of one swing. Kitayama had a two-shot lead when he hit a wild hook out of bounds on the ninth hole, leading to triple-bogey.
“It went south on 9,” Kitayama said. “All of a sudden, I’m not leading anymore. I just fought back hard, and I’m proud of myself for that.”
The finish kept everyone guessing, especially when there was a five-way tie for the lead deep in the round, all of them one swing or one putt away from potentially winning.
“I certainly felt it on the golf course, so I’m sure it was pretty good to watch,” McIlroy said. “It’s hard because the lead was changing hands with guys making bogeys, not really making birdies. So don’t know how people find that entertainment value.
“But it was a great back nine. It was great to be involved with. I’m really happy for Kurt. He’s been playing well for a while now and I’m happy to see him get his first win.”
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.