ORLANDO, Fla.—Kurt Kitayama is chasing his first PGA Tour victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a world-class group of contenders right behind him.
Kitayama should only be used in this way.
He fell to Jon Rahm in Mexico, Xander Schaffele in Scotland, and Rory McIlroy (South Carolina) in the same year.
Kitayama handled the wind that made Bay Hill difficult and posted a 4-under par 68 for a lead of two shots over Jordan Spieth (a three-time major champion who was also former No. Kitayama was the No. 1 player in the world.
“Right now I feel like I’m just trying to get that win,” Kitayama said. “It’s tough, especially with the guys I’ve been against. So I’ve just got to keep putting myself in that position to give myself a chance.”
Rahm finally looked like a human being. Rahm’s final five holes featured a double bogey and three bogeys, as well as a birdie. He finished sixth behind after shooting 76, his highest score in the PGA Championship’s third round last May.
“How would I characterize it? What do you think I’m going to say? Excuse my language, but it’s (expletive) hard,” Rahm stated.
He smiled as he spoke and seemed happy to have finished his sentence.
“It’s firm. It’s fast. And it’s blowing 30 miles an hour,” He said. “It’s a very difficult golf course.”
Kitayama was at 9under 135, and Spieth, who tied fourth in his one appearance at Bay Hill, is the immediate threat.
Spieth was able to reach the par fives on the back nine with two shots to set up birdies. He holed a long par shot on 15th, and a long birdie putt at the fringe on 17th. Finally, he scored a massive break with what his friends called the worst drive they had ever hit. It featured a snap hook that looked sure to go out-of bounds.
It settled at the base a mesh boundary fence. Spieth only played left-handed, inverting a sand wedge. This would have put his feet on the cart track, and he was entitled for a free drop.
“It was very lucky,” Spieth spoke. “The whole entire hole I should have made 6 or 7, and I sneaky almost made a 4.”
He missed the par putt, so he had to settle for a 69 and a place in Saturday’s final group.
Cameron Young seemed to be on the same level as him until the four final holes. He was only one behind, until a pair bogeys. Then he shot from the thick rough into water on the 18th for another double bogey. A 73 followed. He was five shots behind.
Schauffele dropped only one shot — his approach to the 11th came up short and into the water, and he made an 18-foot putt to escape the bogey — and played the final 16 holes without a bogey. He shot 70, and was three shots behind Corey Conners who had the lowest round of the day at 66.
“Felt like a 62,” Conners said.
Justin Thomas had eight birdies but only managed a bogey bogey finish of 67. He was among the group at 5-under-139, which also included Patrick Cantlay (71) as well as U.S Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick (69), who birdied his final three holes for a 69.
Kitayama continued to plod along, even though the wind was picking up. He was still bogey-free except for the par-5 16th. There, he moved out of position on the tee. His third shot saw him play too short of the water and resulted in bogey.
He responded with a 100-foot bunker-shot to tap-in on the par-3 17, and, with the wind at his rear, hit gap wedge to ten feet for birdie.
Kitayama does not need to play in a PGA Tour event. He is often seen in Las Vegas playing with Schauffele as well as Collin Morikawa (two-time major champion).
“Yeah, Kurt, we call him ‘Quadzilla’ or the ‘Quadfather.’ He’s got really big legs,” Schauffele said. “He’s a good dude. He’s a really good player. He hangs tough and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. So not surprised to see him up there.”
Kitayama, who is 5-foot-7, has plenty of power coming from his legs. After making a tap-in birdie at the 11th, he drove 361 yards to the par-5 12th. He left only an 8-iron for the green, which set up another birdie.
McIlroy, however, managed to get under par for the first tournament. He made a 15-foot birdie on the par-3 17th hole. He birdied all the par 5s and ended with a 69. Although he was still seven strokes behind Kitayama, he wasn’t too worried about it.
“Kurt’s a great player, but you look at some of the people that are on 6 (under) behind him, like Xander,” McIlroy said. “It’s not the lead … but I feel like if I can catch Xander, then I’m going to get pretty close to winning the golf tournament.”
Two players had Saturday to return to complete the second round. Greg Koch was the one who was in the rough at the par-4 ninth. He could make birdie and cut 1-over 145, which would leave seven players out. Koch missed the cut if he made bogey.
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