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Kurt Kitayama has become a winner on the PGA Tour for the first time after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. A final-round even-par score of 72 was enough for the 30-year-old to secure victory on Sunday, despite solid efforts from Rory Mcilroy, Harris English, and Jordan Spieth.
It will perhaps be Spieth who will be most disappointed to miss out. The three-time major champion was two shots behind Kitayama going into the final round but he caught fire on the opening nine holes on Sunday to give himself a two-shot lead at the top of the leaderboard. Unfortunately for him, bad putting on the back nine ruled him out of contention.
Kitayama still had to hold off the likes of Mcilroy, Scheffler and English on the back nine, however, which is no easy feat. Scheffler and Mcilroy have both already recorded wins this year and are two of the best three players in the game.
Going down the stretch, Kitayama and Mcilroy were tied on -8 while Scheffler was a shot further back on -7 alongside the likes of Tyrell Hatton and Viktor Hovland. It was Kitayama who dealt the decisive blow, though, on the 17th. A great tee shot into the 220-yard, par three left him with a decent birdie chance which he gobbled up.
With Mcilroy missing a birdie chance of his own on 18, Kitayama knew par would be enough for the win and he played the hole accordingly.
This putt was just nails. Nobody had made anything in about an hour. Greens crispy as hell. Kitayama tied for the lead with half the Ryder Cup. Hit a bold tee shot to get here — and then absolutely buried it. Great golf day. pic.twitter.com/QS1TGyoxpY
— Dylan Dethier (@dylan_dethier) March 6, 2023
A dream come true for Kitayama
A triple bogey on the 9th left many believing that Kitayama’s chances were over, especially with how Mcilroy and Spieth were playing. However, he showed great temperament and skill to bounce back on the back nine and then hold his nerve when it really mattered. Speaking to reporters afterwards, he said:
“I’m ecstatic, I’ve been dreaming of this for a while. I’ve been close and to finally get it done feels amazing. For the most part, I was feeling in control – one loose swing there and maybe a bad kick left, it just happens.
My heart was pumping, but being in those situations in the past definitely helped. I found myself walking super-fast and then I was like, ‘slow down, just take a minute’, and that really helped.”
Mcilroy, on the other hand, will be rueing his opening round of 73. A better start to the tournament and the Northern Irishman would have won with relative comfort. Speaking afterwards, Mcilroy said:
“I’m disappointed. I feel like I gave myself a great chance after the birdie on 13, and then playing the final five holes in one over par, with this jam-packed field, isn’t really going to get it done. It was a battle all day but I felt like I hung in there really well. Kurt played well and did really well to win it on that back nine.”
No time for rest
Due to the full-throttle nature of the PGA Tour, the game’s top players don’t have long to wait until they are back out there competing. The Players Championship starts this Thursday at TPC Sawgrass in the tournament that is regarded by many as “golf’s fifth major”.
Scottie Scheffler, Rory Mcilroy and Jon Rahm will once again go head-to-head for top spot in the world rankings. All three men have already held the position at some point this year and it could change hands once again this week after Rahm’s disappointing performance at Bay Hill.
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