Kitayama seals maiden PGA Tour win in thriller at Bay Hill

Kurt Kitayama kept his cool in a nerve-shredding final round to clinch the first PGA Tour victory of his much-traveled 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.

Sweet dreams

“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 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.

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