ORLANDO, FL — Kurt Kitayama left an all-star team of competitors with a triple bogey only to beat them all with a clutch birdie and the best delay putt of his life to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational Sunday.
With five players in the lead and just three holes left, Kitayama pulled forward with a birdie putt from just 15 feet on the par-3 17th hole to take the lead. Then his 50-foot putt stopped about an inch from the cup on the last hole.
The tie for a straight 72 was perhaps the easiest shot he had all day.
Rory McIlroy threw himself into the mix with four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the corner, only to miss a 10-foot birdie putt on the last hole of the lead. He had 70 and finished one shot behind. So did Harris English, who spent 70 years ghost free in a weekend in the harsh and windy Bay Hill.
Defending champion Scotty Scheffler was a foot away from giving Birdie a good look and a chance to take the lead. Instead, his ball returned to Raw on the 18th, ending in a bogey. Jordan Spieth was among the six players who took at least part of the lead in the last two hours. He missed four straight putts within 8 feet of holes 14 through 17 – three of which were par. He took the lead by making a 15 foot birdie putt and then playing the last five holes to par 3s.
Spieth (70′), Scheffler (73′), Patrick Cantlay (68′) and Terrell Hutton (72′) all finished two shots down.
They all had a chance, mostly because of a swing. Kitayama led by a shot when he hit a wild hook out of bounds on the ninth hole, resulting in a triple bogey.
These are the players who keep beating Kitayama – John Rahm by a shot in Mexico, Xander Schauffele by a shot at the Scottish Open and McIlroy by a shot at the CJ Cup in South Carolina last year.
This time, the 30-year-old, who has worked around the world for a PGA Tour card, had the final say.
Kitayama finished 9 under 279 and earned $3.6 million.
“I went south on the 9th,” Kitayama said. “Suddenly I stopped driving. I fought so hard and I’m proud of myself for that.”
McIlroy attempted a running game on round 3 of 14, unaware he was right in the mix and started a bogey stretch that threw him back. On the 18th he hit the best approach of all, just over the flag at 10 feet. The hit stayed the whole time.
The finish was such pure drama that five players were in the lead deep into the last lap with every chance of victory.
“But he was a great defender. It was great working with him,” he said. “I’m very happy for Kurt. He’s been playing well for a while now and I’m happy he’s getting his first win.”
Of the top seven players, all have won major championships or played in the Ryder Cup. The exception is Kitayama, who prepared for a moment like this with several tight calls against players of sophisticated origins.
Kitayama, who played at UNLV, had little success on the Korn Ferry Tour and plied his craft overseas on the Asian Tour and European Tour, with stints on the Sunshine Tour of South Africa and the Japan Golf Tour.
Now he’s world No. 19, with a red cardigan to win Arnie’s spot and a big feather in his cap for the players he’s had to beat.
On the 18th he made it difficult for himself and drove the tee shot into the super rough. His only thought was, “Just make it to the green, just give me a chance.”
That was all he needed and he finally had a PGA Tour title to his name.
Meanwhile, Ram finished tied for 39th – his first time outside the top 10 since last August’s Tour championship. He still managed to keep himself at the top of the world.