ORLANDO — Since this PGA Tour season started last fall, the focus has been put on big names getting together more often. Designated events with $20 million purses. The “product.” Kurt Kitayama has no issues with that. He’s trying to become a big name himself.
A maiden PGA Tour victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational would be a giant leap towards doing that. Kitayama has that career milestone in his sights after a gutsy even-par 72 in the third round that kept him at nine under par and atop the leaderboard at Bay Hill.
Kitayama is one of only a few unheralded players high on the board. World No. 2 and defending champion Scottie Scheffler (68) is a shot back and tied for second with Viktor Hovland (66). Tyrrell Hatton, the 2020 Palmer champion, shot 66 to lurk at seven under. Rory McIlroy, Harris English (six under), Pierceson Coody, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth (five under), Max Homa and Cameron Young (four under) are all within five shots of the California native Kitayama.
Kitayama isn’t afraid, made obvious when he made birdie at Bay Hill’s 18th to go from the third-to-last group to the final pairing and the 54-hole leader.
“I think you just kind of accept it,” Kitayama, a two-time DP World Tour winner, said. “You look at the leaderboard, the rankings and what [the big names] have done. People will probably be cheering for them louder [Sunday]. There’s nothing I can do, just embrace it.”
Scheffler was in a similar position last year when he donned the red cardigan at Arnie’s place. His star was only rising, and he had only recorded his maiden PGA Tour win three weeks prior in Phoenix when he held off Hatton, Hovland and Billy Horschel to win. He can relate to Kitayama’s position. Now he’s a Masters champion.
“[Kitayama] may not be a household name here, but he’s won a bunch of times worldwide,” said Scheffler, who is in position to defend the second of the four PGA Tour wins from last year, having done so in Phoenix last month.
Hovland will join Kitayama in the final pairing Sunday as a reward for six birdies and no bogeys on Day 3—quite the accomplishment on a hot, windy day on last season’s fourth-toughest course on the PGA Tour. Hovland hit 12 of 14 fairways and 16 greens to gain more than six strokes on the field from tee-to-green.
Hovland, who made a hole-in-one on Bay Hill’s par-3 seventh on Friday, is chasing his first PGA Tour win in the U.S. after one each at Mexico’s Mayakoba resort and Puerto Rico.
Good thing the Norwegian said Bay Hill feels like a European course transplanted to Florida.
“I can only speculate, but I feel like this golf course kind of has a little European feel to it with the wind,” he said. “You got some doglegs and crosswinds. It’s not always just about kind of bomb and gouge. If you can kind of shape a few shots off the tee and hit a lot of fairways, with how firm it is, the ball’s going to roll a long way. So precision is a big deal out here.”
The wind, firm fairways, slick greens and thick rough can bring some of the world’s best players undone. World No. 1 Jon Rahm, who shot a brilliant 65 to lead the first round, followed with rounds of 76-76. It’s Rahm’s first time with back-to-back rounds of 76 or worse since the 2018 U.S. Open
Safe to say it requires patience, which England’s Hatton is not known for. He’s a favorite with fans for his colorful outbursts after poor shots, which he joked about with reporters Saturday. In addition to winning in 2020, Hatton finished one shot behind Scheffler last year in a tie for second. He was asked why his record is so impressive at a frustrating course. He said he’s calmer underneath the surface than he appears.
“What you guys [fans and media] see, me having a head off [outburst] … I’ll let my frustration out, but although I look like I’m running hot, I’m pretty good at just getting on with the next shot,” Hatton said with a grin.
The cream has risen at Bay Hill, and Sunday promises to be a made-for-TV shootout among the stars. But Kitayama, who owns three runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour, is ready for a fight.
“There’s no giving up; it’s just kind of in my nature,” he said. “Even when it’s going bad, you can’t just like pack it in. You fight for every shot.”