ORLANDO, Florida: Kurt Kitayama let an All-Star cast of contenders back into the tournament with a triple bogey, only to beat them all with a clutch birdie and the best lag putt of his life to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday.
With five players tied for the lead with only three holes left, Kitayama pulled ahead with a birdie putt from just inside 15 feet on the par-3 17th hole for the lead. Then, his 50-foot putt on the last hole stopped an inch from the cup.
The tap-in par for an even-par 72 might have been the easiest shot he had all day.
Rory McIlroy roared into the mix with four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the turn, only to miss a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole for the lead. He had a 70 and finished one shot behind. So did Harris English, who went bogey-free on the weekend at crusty, windy Bay Hill for a 70.
Defending champion Scottie Scheffler was a foot away from having a close look at birdie and a chance to take the lead. Instead, his ball spun back into the rough on the 18th and he finished with a bogey.
Jordan Spieth was among six players who had at least a share of the lead over the final two hours. He missed four straight putts inside 8 feet from the 14th through the 17th holes — three of them for par. He took the lead with a 15-foot birdie putt, then played his last five holes in 3 over.
Spieth (70), Scheffler (73), Patrick Cantlay (68) and Tyrrell Hatton (72) all finished two shots behind.
They all had a chance, mostly because of one swing. Kitayama had a two-shot lead when he hit a wild hook out-of-bounds on the ninth hole, leading to triple bogey.
These are the kind of players who kept beating Kitayama — Jon Rahm by one shot in Mexico, Xander Schauffele by one shot in the Scottish Open, McIlroy by one shot in the CJ Cup in South Carolina last year.
This time, the 30-year-old Californian who toiled around the world to earn a PGA Tour card had the final say.
Kitayama finished at 9-under 279 and earned $3.6 million.
“It went south on 9,” Kitayama said. “All of a sudden, I’m not leading any more. I just fought back hard, and I’m proud of myself for that.”
McIlroy tried a bold play on the par-3 14th without knowing he was right in the mix, the start of a bogey-bogey stretch that set him back. He hit the best approach of anyone on the 18th, right over the flag to 10 feet. The putt stayed to the right the whole way.
The finish was such pure theater that five players were tied for the lead deep into the final round, and all of them had chances to win.
“I certainly felt it on the golf course, so I’m sure it was pretty good to watch,” McIlroy said. “It’s hard because the lead was changing hands with guys making bogeys, not really making birdies. So don’t know how people find that entertainment value.
“But it was a great back nine. It was great to be involved with,” he said. “I’m really happy for Kurt. He’s been playing well for a while now and I’m happy to see him get his first win.”
Of the top seven players, all of them have either won majors or played in the Ryder Cup. The exception is Kitayama, who groomed himself for a moment like this with so many close calls against players with polished pedigrees.
Kitayama, who played at UNLV, didn’t find much success on the Korn Ferry Tour and took his trade overseas to the Asian Tour and European tour, with stops along the way on the Sunshine Tour in South Africa and the Japan Golf Tour.
Now he’s No. 19 in the world, with a red cardigan sweater for winning at Arnie’s place and a big feather in his cap for the players he had to beat.
He made it difficult on himself on the 18th, pulling his tee shot into dense rough. His only thought was to “just get it on the green, just give myself an opportunity.”
That was all he needed and he finally has a PGA Tour title to show for it.
Rahm, meanwhile, finished in a tie for 39th — his first time outside the top 10 since the Tour Championship last August. He still managed to stay at No. 1 in the world.