ORLANDO, Fla. — Kurt Kitayama had to leave home to find his way in golf by playing circuits in Europe, Australia and Asia, all for a chance to get to the highest level. Along with three worldwide titles, he learned how to battle.
That might come in handy Sunday at Bay Hill.
Without a birdie on the front nine and no longer in the lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Kitayama fought back with a 25-foot birdie to start the back nine and two birdies over the final three holes Saturday for an even-par 72.
A 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole gave him a 1-shot lead over defending champion Scottie Scheffler and Viktor Hovland of Norway.
“Just proud of the way I fought,” Kitayama said. “There’s no giving up. It’s just kind of in my nature. Even when it’s going bad, you can’t just like pack it in. You fight for every shot.”
Now comes the hard part for Kitayama, a 30-year-old Californian going after his first PGA Tour victory.
Scheffler had five birdies over his last seven holes in warm gusts that made Bay Hill tough as ever. He finished with a 68 and was a shot behind. Hovland holed a bunker shot for one of his six birdies in a bogey-free round of 66.
Hovland finished runner-up to Scheffler a year ago at Bay Hill.
The rest of the contenders are what was to be expected with a $20 million event and every PGA Tour member from the top 50 in the world.
Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Max Homa all were within range of Kitayama if he were to lose ground or if Bay Hill was baked and brittle as it typically is for the final round.
For now, Kitayama held his own, even if it looked as though he could crater.
His 2-shot lead was gone when one loose swing sent his drive well to the right and out of bounds on the par-5 fourth hole, leading to double bogey. He went out in 39 as Hovland planted himself at the top and McIlroy made his move with a remarkable bogey-free round of 68.
“I think any time you can go bogey-free on the weekend at Bay Hill you’re doing something right,” McIlroy said. “I got myself right into the tournament, into the thick of things for tomorrow.”
Kitayama bounced back with four birdies on the back nine, and that final putt put him at 9-under 207. Tyrrell Hatton (66) was 2 shots behind, while McIlroy and Harris English (69) were another shot back.
“Started off fairly solid first three holes and then one loose swing and I’m 2 over,” Kitayama said. “Then got some uncomfortable shots coming in on that front nine. It’s just tough. But making that birdie, that putt on 10, that helped calm things down.”
There was plenty of evidence of trouble at Bay Hill, as always.
Corey Conners of Canada was among four players who had at least a share of the lead at one point Saturday, only to shoot 40 on the back nine for a 75.
Spieth opened bogey-bogey playing in the final group with Kitayama. He still was within 2 shots of the lead but then went the final 12 holes with no birdies and one bogey for a 74. Thomas played bogey-free until missing a 4-foot par putt on the last hole for a 72.
Homa was 4 under through his opening four holes, only to drop 4 shots the rest of the way until a birdie on the 16th for a 71. He was 5 behind, along with Cameron Young (72).
Still, this final round could be wide open.
Kitayama finished 1 shot behind three times last year — to Jon Rahm in the Mexico Open, Xander Schauffele in the Scottish Open, McIlroy at the CJ Cup in South Carolina. Now he has to contend with a host of top players, and Scheffler is sure to get his attention. Scheffler already has successfully defended one title this year at the WM Phoenix Open.
Scheffler took care of both par-5s on the back nine, hit a lob wedge at a scary pin on the 13th for birdie and saved his best for the par-3 17th. Even with the wind at his back, his only hope was to hit something that stayed on the brick-hard green. He hammered a 9-iron and watched it narrowly clear the bunker and finish 4 feet away.
Now the Masters champion is in range of another title that could be enough to take him back to No. 1 in the world. Scheffler expects the sternest test of the week.
“Should be another fun one,” he said, alluding to the course and the contenders. “That’s what’s exciting about our new schedule. I think we’re going to have a lot more of this stuff. I’m sure Viktor’s looking to beat me this year and I’m looking to do the same. There’s a lot of talented guys on the leaderboard, though. I’m not going to be too focused on anybody else other than myself going into tomorrow.”
Rahm is in danger of losing the top ranking. He opened with a 65 and followed with two straight 76s. He made five straight bogeys around the turn in the third round.