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Kurt Kitayama handles a windy Bay Hill as Jon Rahm falters

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Published in Golf
Friday, 03 March 2023 10:00

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 be used to that.

Last year alone, he fell one shot sort of Jon Rahm in Mexico, Xander Schauffele in Scotland and Rory McIlroy in South Carolina.

Kitayama handled the wind that only made Bay Hill tougher, posting a 4-under 68 for a two-shot lead over Jordan Spieth, a three-time major champion and former 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 human. His final five holes included a double bogey, three bogeys and a birdie. He shot 76, his highest score since a 76 in the third round of the PGA Championship last May, and fell six shots behind.

“How would I characterize it? What do you think I’m going to say? Excuse my language, but it’s f**king hard,” Rahm said.

He was smiling as he spoke, happy to be done and resigned that a tough day at the office would not belong only to him in these conditions.

“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 9-under 135, and the immediate challenge is Spieth, who tied for fourth in his lone appearance at Bay Hill.

Spieth reached the par 5s on the back nine in two to set up birdies, holed a long par putt on 15, holed a long birdie putt from the fringe on the 17th, and then got a huge break with what he called the worst drive he ever hit with a snap hook that looked certain to go out-of-bounds.

Instead, it settled at the base of a mesh boundary fence. Spieth’s only play was to invert a sand wedge and play it left-handed. That would put his feet on the cart path, and from there he was entitled to a free drop.

“It was very lucky,” Spieth said. “The whole entire hole I should have made 6 or 7, and I sneaky almost made a 4.”

He missed the par putt and had to settle for a 69 and a spot in the final group Saturday.

Cameron Young looked to be right there until the final four holes. He was one shot behind until a pair of bogeys and then a shot from the thick rough into the water on the 18th for a double bogey and a 73. He was five 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 with bogey — and played the final 16 holes without a bogey. He shot 70 and was three behind along with Corey Conners, who had the low round of the day at 66.

“Felt like a 62,” Conners said.

Rahm gave the four shots he picked up his final three holes Thursday back Friday morning in windy conditions at Bay Hill.

Justin Thomas managed eight birdies, only for a bogey-bogey finish for a 67. He was in the group at 5-under 139 that included Patrick Cantlay (71) and U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, who birdied his last three holes for a 69.

Kitayama plodded along even as the wind began to pick up. He was bogey-free until the par-5 16th when he got out of position off the tee and had to play short of the water with his third shot, leading to bogey.

But he answered with a 100-foot bunker shot to tap-in range on the par-3 17th, and with the wind at his back, hit gap wedge to 10 feet for birdie at the 18th.

Kitayama doesn’t need a PGA Tour event to get in some good competition. He plays regularly in Las Vegas with Schauffele and two-time major champion Collin Morikawa.

“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.”

There’s plenty of power from those legs on the 5-foot-7 Kitayama. After a tap-in birdie on the 11th, he hammered a drive 361 yards on the par-5 12th, leaving only an 8-iron to the green that set up another birdie.

McIlroy, meanwhile, got under par for the first time in the tournament on his 26th hole, making a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th hole. He birdied the par 5s on the front nine and finished with a 69, still seven behind Kitayama but not overly stressed 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 have to return Saturday morning to finish the second round. One was Greg Koch, in the rough on the difficult par-4 ninth. If he made birdie, the cut would be 1-over 145 and he would knock out seven players. A bogey would mean Koch misses the cut.

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