Kitayama battles to pip Rory for maiden PGA Tour title

Ronan MacNamara

Kurt Kitayama (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Kurt Kitayama held off a plethora of big names to capture his first PGA Tour title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as a huge mental error cost Rory McIlroy at Bay Hill.

Kitayama posted a pair of weekend 72s to finish on nine-under and pip McIlroy and Harris English by the minimum.

The 30-year-old showed his battling qualities on more than one occasion, having bounced back from a double bogey in round three to regain the lead before fighting back after a triple bogey seven on the ninth and a three-putt par on 16 when it seemed his opportunity had come and gone.

But Kitayama wasn’t to be denied as he drained a 13-footer for birdie on the long par-3 17th before playing a superb second shot into the heart of the 18th green from the left rough to leave himself two putts for the win.

“I’ve always dreamed of winning on the Tour and to finally do it, yeah, it’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty unbelievable, really.

“I think just a little bit of luck finally went my way. When it’s that close at the top, that’s what you need. Anyone probably could have won it. Luckily it just happened to be me.”

The win moves Kitayama into the top-20 of the Official World Golf Rankings for the first time in his career and it’s just reward for a player who has plied his trade on the Korean, Asian and DP World Tours in his time.

“Yeah, absolutely [it toughens you]. It’s a different experience, for sure. You just travel to every different country, you’re dealing with logistics, food, the culture, language. So like outside of golf it’s difficult if you don’t know, if you don’t have someone there helping you.

“I think that just helps you grow as a person and when you get into situations like this, you know there’s tougher things.”

Kitayama has been on the wrong side of tight battles before having pushed McIlroy all the way in the CJ Cup. On a day where there were six different leaders, McIlroy was happy to see Kitayama come out on top.

“Yeah, I certainly felt it on the golf course, so I’m sure it was pretty good to watch. It’s hard because the lead’s changing hands with guys making bogeys, not really making birdies. So don’t know how people find that entertainment value.

“But it was a great back nine. It was great to be involved with. I’m really happy for Kurt. He’s been playing well for awhile now and I’m happy to see him get his first win.”

The Holywood native teed off just three shy of Kitayama but a pair of opening bogeys looked to have ended his challenge but Kitayama’s triple bogey was in tandem with an electric run from McIlroy who carded four birdies in five holes to take the lead.

However, a bogey on 14 and another on 15 dropped McIlroy one shy again before he levelled affairs with a birdie on 16. The four-time major winner had a putt to force a playoff but it wasn’t to be on 18.

“Yeah, bad start, really good middle, and then — well, not a bad finish. If I look back on today the one thing I’ll rue is the tee shot on 14. I birdied 13 and got on to 14 tee and I honestly thought I was still like one or two behind the lead. As I was walking to the 14th green, I looked behind me at the scoreboard, and I was leading by one. And if I had of known that, I wouldn’t have tried to play the shot that I played on 14, which was unfortunate, but I ended up making bogey there and then a bad swing off the tee on 15 and a bogey.

“So I had a chance at the last. I hit a good putt. It just missed on the low side. But it was a good week. I saw some positive signs. Game’s rounding into form for the bulk of the season. So I’m, even though I didn’t get the win, I’m still pretty happy with how everything went this week.”

McIlroy will have to wait another week to return to world number one.

As for the rest of the Irish, Pádraig Harrington closed with a final round of 75 for a T53 finish and a cheque worth $46, 450. Seamus Power propped up the field on twelve-over after a 76/78 weekend while Shane Lowry finished on a high with a one-under 71, bouncing back from his moving day 80.

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