Kurt Kitayama simply outplayed all the big names on the leaderboard.
The 30-year-old Kitayama, from Chico and UNLV, claimed his first PGA Tour victory by sinking a 14-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to beat third-ranked Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Harris English by one stroke in the 58th Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla.
Six players held at least a share of the lead on the back nine in the final round, five of them sharing the lead at one point.
“I’ve always dreamed of winning on the PGA Tour and to finally do it, it’s pretty amazing after being close several times before,” said Kitayama, who has finished second three times in recent seasons. “I’m proud of how hard I fought. I had the lead and went south on No. 9, and all of the sudden I’m not leading anymore. I just fought back hard, I’m proud of myself for that.
“I didn’t feel rattled, even though I looked at the scoreboard at No. 11 and saw I was down by two strokes, but I took another look at No. 14 and saw I was right there. The adrenaline kicked in then and I played well the rest of the way.
“After I made the birdie on No. 17, I just wanted to get on the green on the last hole and two-putt for a par, and that’s what I did. It was really hard. I’m going to sleep really well tonight. It’s everything I kind of mentally prepared myself for.”
Kitayama, who has won three professional events around the world, drove into the left rough on No. 18, but hit his approach shot onto the green to within 47 feet of the hole and his approach putt hung on the lip. All he needed was to tap the ball into the cup for a second straight even-par 72, after opening 67-68, to record a winning score of 9-under, 179.
Earlier, Kitayama made three birdies on the first seven holes to maintain his lead, but then drove the ball out of bounds on the ninth hole and made a triple-bogey 7 before rattling off seven straight parts ahead of his winning birdie.
Then he donned the famed Red Cardigan sweater, made famous by Arnold Palmer, which goes to the winner.
McIlroy, who would have regained the No. 1 spot in the world with a victory, took the lead with four birdies in five holes through No. 13, but then fell back with bogeys on the next two holes on his way to a 70.
“I’m just disappointed,” said McIlroy, who beat Kitayama by one stroke at the CJ Cup in South Carolina last October. “I gave myself a chance with that birdie on No. 13, but then I played the last five holes in one-over. I didn’t know exactly where I was, but then I saw the scoreboard on No. 14 and I was one shot ahead, but I didn’t play well after that.
“It hurts to come up one shot short and I just didn’t get the job done, but it was an exciting back nine with all those guys involved and it was great to be involved with. I’m really happy for Kurt. All credit to him because he’s been playing well for a while now and I’m happy to see him get his first win.
“I played better than I did the last two weeks in Los Angeles and in the Honda, and that’s important going to TPC Sawgrass (for The Players Championship) this week.”
English, who has won four times on the PGA Tour including the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the Travelers Championship in 2021, made four birdies on the back nine but missed a 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole before McIlroy missed an 11-footer as they tried to force a playoff.
Second-ranked Scottie Scheffler, who would have regained the No. 1 spot with a tie for second or better, made bogeys on two of the first three holes on his way to a 73 and finished two shots behind in a tie for third with fourth-ranked Patrick Cantlay of Los Alamitos and UCLA, who sank a 41-foot eagle putt at No. 12; Jordan Spieth, who held the lead on the back nine before making three late bogeys in a 70, and Tyrrell Hatton of England, who had three bogeys on the back side in a 72.
Davis Riley, who won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour, birdied four straight holes on the front nine and sank a 10-foot eagle putt at No. 16 en route to a 66 and was three strokes back in a tie for eighth with Trey Mullinax, who had four birdies on the back nine in a 69.
Keegan Bradley collected six birdies in a 67 to wind up four shots down in a tie for ninth with Jason Day of Australia, who made a lone bogey in his 70, Cameron Young, who finished his 71 with 14 straight pars, and Viktor Hovland of Norway, who started and finished with bogeys while struggling to a 75.
Eighth-ranked Max Homa of Valencia and Cal tied for 14th after two late birdies in a 72, ninth-ranked Justin Thomas made four bogeys on the front nine in a 74 and tied for 21st, top-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain eagled No. 5 had two late birdies in a 72 to finish in a tie for 43rd that included sixth-ranked Xander Schauffele of La Jolla and San Diego State, who stumbled to a 76, while seventh-ranked Will Zalatoris tied for 53rd after a 73.
For complete results, visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard