A rollercoaster affair Sunday at Bay Hill culminated with the perhaps the most unsteady of the bunch, Kurt Kitayama, donning the red cardigan as winner of the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Five players — including three of the last five winners of this tournament — were tied for the lead with three holes left to play, yet it was Kitayama who pushed ahead, summoning a clutch birdie on the 71st hole and an equally clutch par on the 72nd to secure his first victory on the PGA Tour.
For Kitayama (-9), the day began in ho-hum fashion with a birdie in his opening three holes to extend his 54-hole lead over a charging Jordan Spieth and a pestering Tyrrell Hatton. Two more birdies on his outward half put him in control before a wayward tee shot fell out of bounds on the par-4 9th resulting in a triple bogey.
“Things went south on nine, and all of a sudden, I am not leading anymore,” Kitayama said. “I just fought back hard, and I am proud of myself for that. … I told [caddie Tim Tucker] I didn’t feel rattled at all. He said, ‘You look good. We’ll just keep trucking along; we’ll get it back.'”
Trucking along they did. Seven straight pars put Kitayama back in the driver’s seat right as Rory McIlroy and Harris English posted the clubhouse lead at 8 under. Scottie Scheffler, the 2022 champion at this event, nearly joined them. Their efforts ultimately fell short when Kitayama connected from just outside 13 feet on the par-3 17th, jumping into the solo lead with his first birdie of the back nine. A clutch two-putt par on the final hole — his birdie putt came mere centimeters from falling into the cup — secured Kitayama’s maiden voyage into the winner’s circle.
Kitayama’s career earnings of $4.1 million will nearly double as he adds the $3.6 million top prize from winning at Bay Hill. Capturing the fourth designated event of the season, Kitayama presents a stark contrast from the first three winners: Scheffler and Jon Rahm (twice).
Sure, Kitayama has won twice on the DP World Tour, but he’s hardly a household name. He hasn’t contended or won at major champions and barely sat inside the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings before this week. Yet through three designated events, those similar to Kitayama — think Nick Taylor at the WM Phoenix Open and Keith Mitchell at the Genesis Invitational — have continued to persist.
It’s what makes this game so great. The vast majority of the time, the Kitayamas and Taylors of the world fall short to the McIlroys and Schefflers. Sometimes, though, they break through. Sometimes, the ball bounces their way. In Kitayama’s case, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the little guy still wins.
After falling short to McIlroy at The CJ Cup in South Carolina, Xander Schauffele at the Scottish Open and Rahm at the Mexico Open, Kitayama’s efforts have finally resulted in the biggest moment of his career. Grade: A
Here is the breakdown of some notable names on the leaderboard at the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
T2. Rory McIlroy (-8): The four-time major champion seemed out of it after an opening-round 73, but he’s a monster at Bay Hill and closed 69-68-70, nearly pulling off the victory even with an average putting performance. McIlroy made just five pars on Sunday in a Jordan Spieth-like showing and looked as if he was going to steal the tournament from Spieth himself. It’s a great jump start to what has been a pretty mediocre start (for him) to the 2023 PGA Tour season. Now he goes to The Players Championship with some juice as he is once again hurtling toward the Masters with momentum and supreme confidence in his game. Grade: A-
T4. Jordan Spieth (-7): His usual manic self on the course on Sunday, he poured in birdies from all over the yard along with ghastly bogeys when he couldn’t afford them. Spieth went at flags that discouraged it and generally tried to light the world on fire. It should not be surprising that Spieth plays so well outside a city with so many roller coasters. He led for a while on the back nine, but the putter — his nemesis for a while now — hurt him late and he faded to finish just beyond the leaders. However, it was a positive step forward for the golden child as the march to Augusta National continues. Grade: B+
T4. Tyrrell Hatton (-7): The Great Gesticulator. Hatton waves his arms more than Miss Universe, and if we didn’t have a scorecard to go alongside his round Sunday, one would think he shot 82 to finish T40 and not 72 to finish T4. The frustrating part for him was that he lost over a stroke to the field with his putter (thus the nickname).”Generally, I’ve played well enough tee to green to win the tournament today,” said Hatton. “So, that’s pretty disappointing. Normally putting is obviously quite a strength. So for me to have the long game as good as it was to then not take advantage of that really is disappointing. Yeah, I’m pretty gutted. It was nice to be up there and have a chance to win again. It’s been awhile.” Still, this was a good week for Hatton going into major season where he has traditionally struggled a bit over the course of his career. Grade: B+
T4. Scottie Scheffler (-7): The defending champion looked to be the man to beat late in the final round. Two-putting for birdie on the 16th, Scheffler nearly grabbed the solo lead with a 30-foot birdie effort on the 17th before an inexcusable bogey on the finishing hole. With a wedge in hand, the Texan ultimately missed the green when a birdie would have given him the outright lead and a par would have tied him with McIlroy and English in the clubhouse. The “Scottie Slam” will have to wait as he looks to defend his next title at the Match Play before setting his sights on Augusta. Grade: B
T39. Jon Rahm (+1): Rahm opened with 65 and looked like he was going to win his third designated event of the year with ease. Then he played his last 54 holes in 8 over and finished tied with Luke Donald and Martin Laird. What went wrong? Well, it might be more appropriate to ask what went right. Rahm finished next to last in the field in driving and didn’t sniff the title even though he putted it well above average on the week. Golf, as they say, is undefeated, and these last three days are proof. Regardless, he’s still probably going to win The Players next weekend. Grade: C-