Kurt Kitayama kept his cool in a nerve-shredding final round to clinch the first PGA Tour victory of his much-travelled career at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando on Sunday.
The 30-year-old journeyman, who led by one at the start of the final round, held off a ferocious challenge from some of the biggest names in world golf to card an even-par 72 and complete a one-shot victory.
Kitayama’s hopes of a maiden win appeared to have faded after a disastrous end to the front nine, when he took a triple-bogey seven to relinquish the lead.
But the 46th-ranked California steadied the ship to stay in the hunt down the stretch, reeling off seven straight pars before sinking a 13-foot birdie putt at the 17th to reclaim top spot on the leaderboard on nine under.
Until that point, it looked as if the tournament was destined for a playoff, with big guns Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler both firmly in the hunt for the title.
No fewer than five players shared the lead at one stage with just a few holes remaining.
There was to be no denying victory to Kitayama, however, who approached the 18th knowing that a par would be enough to hang on to his slender advantage – and pocket a winner’s cheque of $3.6-million.
His tee shot flew into the thick rough down the left-hand side of the fairway on 18, but he blasted a second safely onto the green to leave himself two putts for victory.
He almost sealed it with his first putt, rolling a 47-footer to the very lip of the cup to roars from the packed galleries, before eventually tapping in for par.
Kurt Kitayama 𝘼𝙇𝙈𝙊𝙎𝙏 brought the house down at Bay Hill 🤏 pic.twitter.com/olvd8zDqe2
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 6, 2023
“It was really hard. I’m going to sleep really well tonight. It’s everything I kind of mentally prepared myself for,” said Kitayama. “I’ve always dreamed of winning on the Tour and to finally do it, it’s pretty amazing.”
The win was especially sweet for Kitayama, who finished as a runner-up three times in 2022.
Kitayama arrived on the PGA Tour after a challenging start to his career, playing on the developmental Web.com Tour with little success after turning professional in 2015 before moving to the Asian Tour in 2018.
He switched to the European Tour in 2019, where he has two won twice, before finally earning a PGA Tour card in 2021.
For long periods on Sunday, it looked as if it was going to be another near-miss for the Californian, as other players began building up a head of steam down the stretch.
But as the tension mounted, player after player squandered opportunities to take the lead as putts refused to drop.
Northern Ireland star McIlroy just missed a birdie putt on the 18th that would have put him on nine under, while Scheffler missed a birdie putt on the 17th that could have put him in the leading pack.
McIlroy carded a two-under-par 70 to close, finishing tied for second on eight under alongside Harris English, who also shot a 70.
McIlroy looked to be ready to sweep to victory after starting the back nine with three birdies in his first four holes to move into the lead, before back-to-back bogeys on the 14th and 15th checked his progress.
McIlroy later revealed he had not been aware he was in the lead after his birdies on the 12th and 13th – and paid the price for an over-aggressive tee-shot on 14.
“As I was walking to the 14th green, I looked behind me at the scoreboard, and I was leading by one,” McIlroy said. “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have tried to play the shot that I played on 14, which was unfortunate.”
Although he recovered with a birdie on the 16th, the damage had been done.
Scheffler, meanwhile, finished in a four-way tie for fourth alongside Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay and England’s Tyrell Hatton on seven under.
The three South Africans in the field – Garrick Higgo, Thriston Lawrence and Christiaan Bezuidenhout – all failed to make the weekend cut.
© Agence France-Presse