Nicknamed ‘The Project’ in college, Kurt Kitayama blossomed into a PGA Tour winner at 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational

Kurt Kitayama sensed his grip on the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard title slipping from his grasp. He had just hooked his tee shot out of bounds at the ninth hole at Bay Hill Lodge & Club in the final round on March 5, 2023, and suffered a triple bogey. The lead, which he had owned almost since the start, had evaporated and he suddenly trailed by a stroke.

“I thought I had lost it,” he recounted in late January.

Seeking his first PGA Tour victory, Kitayama couldn’t help wondering if, as he put it, “here we go again,” and in his head questioned, “Am I ever going to win out here?” But Kitayama silenced that negativity and righted the ship. He carded eight hard-earned pars and a clutch birdie at 17 on the back nine to shoot even-par 72 and outlast co-runner-ups Rory McIlroy and Harris English, among a star-studded leaderboard, by a single stroke to take home the biggest victory of his career.

“Look at him, look at his smile,” caddie Tim Tucker told reporters afterwards. “He got the monkey off his back, proving he can play with the big boys.”

2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational
2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational

Kurt Kitayama shakes hands with his caddie Tim Tucker after winning the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. (Photo: John Raoux/Associated Press)

A never-give-up attitude has been a key ingredient in Kitayama’s rise through the golf ranks. He first started playing golf at age 5, tagging along after his older brother, who would go on to play college golf at Hawaii-Hilo. “I just loved it,” he said, noting that what initially put him on the map was his success at the 2009 Junior Worlds at Torrey Pines in San Diego, where he shot 3 under in the third round to grab the lead.

“I got to the first tee for the final round and I looked around and saw all these college coaches watching me,” Kitayama recalled. “I was like, ‘Whoa.’ That was eye-opening.”

From Chico High in the northern Sacramento Valley, where he starred in both basketball and golf, Kitayama joined UNLV’s golf program. His game, however, was raw in comparison to his teammates when he showed up at UNLV in 2011, where they called Kitayama “The Project.”

“I don’t think he was very good at anything,” said J.C. Deacon, men’s golf coach at the University of Florida and Kitayama’s swing coach since 2017.

Back then, Deacon was an assistant at UNLV during Kitayama’s four years there and recalled that Kitayama could barely break 75 upon his arrival. Then-coach Dwaine Knight recognized his potential and loved his grit.

“He just worked so hard,” Deacon continued. “You tell him something to do and he’d be out there for 10 hours doing it. He always outworked whatever you asked of him.”

That tenacity and perseverance served Kitayama well when he struggled on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2017 and instead went seeking a place to play wherever that happened to take him. Fellow aspiring pro and current PGA Tour member David Lipsky suggested he give the Asian Tour a shot.

“I figured why not,” Kitayama said.

The 31-year-old Kitayama has taken the road less traveled to success in the professional ranks, playing tournaments on 14 different tours worldwide while steadily improving his game.

2018 AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open
2018 AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open

Kurt Kitayama poses with the trophy after winning the 2018 AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open at the Four Seasons Golf Club. (Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images)

“Not finding success early here was, yeah, it’s disappointing, but it took me somewhere else to grow,” he said. “And it was growing more than just in golf, really. You get to experience the different cultures, travel. I mean, you find yourself in some interesting spots. Places that you probably wouldn’t ever go, so, I think just as a person I was able to grow.”

He won in far-flung locales such as an Asian Development Tour event in Malaysia and the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open in December 2018 and the Oman Open in March 2019, becoming the fastest player to win twice in DP World Tour history (only 11 career starts). But the dream always was to get back to the PGA Tour. When Kitayama did, he finished second on three different occasions in 2022, getting pipped by three top-10 players in the world: Jon Rahm at the Mexico Open, Xander Schauffele at the Scottish Open and Rory McIlroy at the CJ Cup.

In the final round at Arnie’s Place, Kitayama buckled but refused to break.

He built a two-stroke lead with three birdies in his first seven holes, including rolling in a 46-footer at seven. But on the ninth hole, he tugged his tee shot left and it stopped out of bounds by six inches, leading to a triple bogey. That knocked him down to 8 under for the tournament, behind new co-leaders Jordan Spieth and Tyrrell Hatton at 9 under. On the long walk to the 10th tee, Kitayama told Tucker, who was working for him for just his third event, that he didn’t feel rattled.

“You look good, and we’re gonna just keep chugging along and we’ll get it back,” said Tucker, who had been on the bag for Bryson DeChambeau when he won the API in 2021.

Trailing Kitayama by four shots at the start of the day, Spieth birdied four of his first five holes. He claimed the lead at 10-under-par with a birdie putt at the par-4 13th from just inside 15 feet, giving him 120 feet of made putts. But then the magic disappeared, and Spieth missed four straight putts inside 8 feet from the 14th through the 17th holes and made three bogeys in that four-hole span. He ended up signing for 70 and a tie for fourth.

“I wouldn’t have hit any of the putts differently,” Spieth said.

Hatton, winner of the API in 2020, blamed his putter, too, for his demise.

“I just didn’t have it today on the greens in the end when I kind of needed it most,” he said.

Scheffler, the defending champion, was one back with wedge in his hand from the fairway at 18 but made bogey to finish at 7-under and share fourth with Spieth.

McIlroy, who won this tournament in 2018, had an inauspicious start with two early bogeys but rallied with birdies at Nos. 12 and 13 to take the lead at 9 under. However, he still thought he trailed and tried an aggressive line at the par-3 14th. It backfired and he made the first of consecutive bogeys to slip back.

“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 known that I wouldn’t have tried to play the shot that I played on 14, which was unfortunate,” said McIlroy, who shot 70 and missed a 10-foot birdie putt that could have forced a playoff.

2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational
2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational

Kurt Kitayama putts on the 14th hole during the final round of the 2023 Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. (Photo: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

When Kitayama arrived at 14 and eyed the leaderboard, he learned he was tied for the lead and had a very different response than McIlroy. “I’m still in this,” he thought. Galvanized, he stretched his par streak to seven in a row although the last of the bunch was a three-putt from 56 feet at the par-5 16th.
The API’s first year as a signature event lived up to the hype and seemed destined to be headed for a wild playoff with a five-way tie at the top with just three holes to play, until Kitayama took care of business. Tied for the lead, he stepped up at the 217-yard, par 3 17th and drilled a 6-iron to 14 feet like it was a Tuesday practice round.

“I just ripped it and it started leaking a little right, but I hit it good enough to cover and it was perfect,” said Kitayama, who finished with a 72-hole aggregate of 9-under 279.

He poured in the birdie putt and was tagged with his latest nickname, this time from TV analyst Paul Azinger, who described him as a junkyard dog feasting on a bone.

Kitayama had to grind out one more par at 18. As he walked off the tee after pulling his tee shot into the rough, he had the self-awareness to realize he was walking too fast.

“I was like, slow down,” he recalled. “J.C. was on the putting green earlier and he said, ‘You know, just relax and just make sure to take some deep breaths and walk slow.’ So I thought of that and I was able to recognize it, luckily, and just kind of calm down.”

From a jumper lie, Kitayama lofted an 8-iron safely on the left side of the green, 47 feet from the hole. On a day at Bay Hill where the greens became so baked that players complained of little friction, Kitayama needed two putts for the win and lagged his birdie effort inches short.

“I felt a huge relief because I couldn’t mess it up from there,” he said, cracking a smile.

Kitayama was a winner at last, slipping into the champion’s red cardigan sweater that he later framed and gave to his parents. As for the trophy?

Kitayama kept that for himself and has it positioned in his bedroom for maximum viewing.

“That way I can see it right before I go to bed and first thing in the morning,” he said.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek