Kurt Kitayama may be the champion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, but he is most certainly not the champion of the 9th hole.
In fact, if there’d been one or two more iterations of the 495-yard par 4 on the course, Kitayama might have missed the cut instead of walking away with the $3.6 million first prize.
Kitayama survived the kind of breathtakingly close finish the PGA Tour was hoping for when it designated the Palmer as an ‘enhanced’ event, defeating Rory McIlroy and Harris English by one stroke each.
Patrick Cantlay, Scottie Scheffler, Tyrrell Hatton, and Jordan Spieth were another stroke back, providing Tour officials with precisely the kind of big-name drama they had hoped to create by pumping up the event’s purse.
Except of course for the guy at the top, the one leader who had never won, the guy nobody really knew much about.
How did Kurt Kitayama even qualify to get into a big-dollar field, anyway?
Academic question…he qualified and that’s all that matters. The real interesting question is how he managed to win despite pulling clown car pranks all weekend when he got to the 9th.
Kitayama finished the week at nine-under. That’s 14-under on the other 17 holes at Bay Hill and five-over on the 9th.
The eventual champ’s 9th hole nightmares began on Thursday when he bunkered his approach, then failed to sink a seven-foot par putt. He made a routine par on Friday, but bogeyed again Saturday, missing with his approach and chipping indifferently.
Still, he began play Sunday with a one-stroke lead and expanded that lead to two by the time he reached the 9th for the fourth time this week. Having already roughed the leader up twice during the week, the 9th was in no better mood. Kitayama’s drive careened left out of bounds, and his provisional found its way into a fairway bunker more than 200 yards from his intended target.
From the bunker, he hacked his fourth into the right rough well short of the green, put his fifth into the fringe, and managed to escape with a triple bogey seven.
How do you play one hole in five strokes over par for the week and still win the championship? It takes effort, not all of it yours.
Spieth certainly had a chance. Kurt Kitayama’s triple at the 9th, coupled with Spieth’s own birdie at 10, kicked him into a commanding position. But Spieth concluded a round that featured six birdies by bogeying three of the final five holes and fell back.
McIlroy and English both had chances. Each could have tied by sinking makeable birdie putts on the final hole. Each missed.
Scottie Scheffler started play Sunday just one stroke behind Kurt Kitayama. But Scheffler bogeyed two of his first three holes, then doubled the eighth, providing his playing partner with just enough cushion to survive that 9th-hole disaster.
Kurt Kitayama wasn’t merely a beneficiary of others’ ill fortune. He made some of his own good fortune on Sunday’s back nine, recovering from that 9th hole triple with a closing 35. The breakthrough moment came on the penultimate hole, a 210-yard par 3 when he holed a 13-foot birdie putt to snap a multi-player tie.
On the 18th, Kitayama drove into the rough but hacked out safely onto the vast green. Needing to two-putt from 60 feet, Kitayama rolled the ball to a spot where nobody could have missed it, the absolute lip of the cup.
Then again nobody should have been surprised that Kitayama handled that decisive 18th hole with such poise and assurance. Two reasons: 1. He’d birdied it each of the first three days. 2. The 18th wasn’t the 9th.