Kurt Kitayama mastered blustery conditions to grab a two-shot lead in the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Friday.
Despite gusts of up to 30mph lashing the Bay Hill course early on, Kitayama reeled off five birdies on his way to a four-under-par 68 to move to nine under following his opening 67 on Thursday.
The lone blemish on the 46th-ranked Californian’s round came on the par-five 16th, where he needed four shots to reach the green and two-putted for a bogey six.
Kitayama will head into the weekend rounds two shots clear of Jordan Spieth, who carded a three-under-par 69 to move to seven under.
Canada’s Corey Conners fired the low round of the day with a six-under-par 66 to move into a two-way tie for third on six under alongside Xander Schauffele.
Justin Thomas, Matt Fitzpatrick, Patrick Cantlay and Davis Riley are a further shot back on five under.
The three South Africans in the field, Garrick Higgo, Thriston Lawrence and Christiaan Bezuidenhout, are on three over, four over and six over respectively.
“It’s always a fun challenge keeping yourself in the moment,” Kitayama said later of his successful duel with the testing conditions. “I feel like when you get conditions like this it’s easy to kind of let things get away from you – for me it’s just keeping myself focused the entire way.”
The 30-year-old has taken a circuitous route to the PGA Tour, playing on the developmental Web.com Tour with little success after turning professional in 2015 before moving to the Asian Tour in 2018.
He moved to the European Tour in 2019, where he has two won twice, before finally earning a PGA Tour card in 2021.
Kitayama said the challenges of attempting to forge his career overseas have helped him develop his competitive temperament.
“Not finding success early [in the US] was disappointing, but it took me somewhere else to grow,” Kitayama said. “Just dealing with adversity, really. When you’re in a random country in Asia and you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going, it’s pretty frustrating and honestly kind of scary a little bit.”
“So I think that helps you just grow, just kind of learn from that experience of being in an uncomfortable situation.”
Three-time Major winner Spieth, meanwhile, is lurking menacingly on Kitayama’s shoulder. The Texan might have been closer to the lead had it not been for a bogey on the 18th, when his 18ft par putt just caressed the cup before rolling past.
“I thought anything under par would be a great score,” said Spieth, adding that improved putting would hold the key to his chances of success this weekend.
“Tee to green I’m doing what I need to do to be able to win the golf tournament,” Spieth said. “Just try to hole some more putts.”
While Kitayama breezed through Friday’s treacherous conditions, world No 1 and overnight leader Jon Rahm was blown off course as he struggled around Bay Hill.
The Spaniard had taken a two-shot lead on Thursday with a seven-under-par 65 but tumbled down the leaderboard on Friday with a four-over-par 76 to head into the weekend on three under, six adrift of Kitayama.
Teeing off on the 10th, Rahm bogeyed his second hole of the day but then birdied the 14th to reach the turn at level par.
But Rahm’s round went pear-shaped down the stretch with three bogeys and a double-bogey seven in his final five holes.
Asked how he would characterise his round, Rahm jokingly dropped an F-bomb before replying: “It’s firm, it’s fast and it’s blowing 30mph. It’s a very difficult golf course.
“For most of the day, I managed it. It’s just the last five holes, even though I didn’t feel like I was making bad swings, I just couldn’t quite get it going and finished poorly the last stretch …
“Luckily I shot seven under yesterday and I’m not too far off.”
© Agence France-Presse