ORLANDO, Fla. — Kurt Kitayama stood atop the Arnold Palmer Invitational leaderboard for much of the day Friday at Bay Hill and, by the end of the round, he was still there.
With a morning tee time for his second round on a windy day at Bay Hill, Kitayama posted a 4-under 68 to get him to 9-under for the tournament.
That held up as the 36-hole lead, two shots clear of his nearest competitor.
After his round was finished, Kitayama, a relatively unknown 30-year-old from Chico, Calif., who has cut his teeth playing all over the world on smaller tours, watched the afternoon wave of players — including some of golf’s blue bloods — take runs at his lead.
Jordan Spieth, a three-time major championship winner, whittled Kitayama’s lead to a mere shot when he pushed to 8-under after birdies on Nos. 16 and 17.
He then took bogey on 18 after a horrible snap-hook drive that nearly went over a fence out bounds, to finish at 7-under, two shots behind the leader.
“I was very prepared to grab another golf ball,” Spieth said. “I don’t know the last time I’ve ever hit a drive that way. I’ve hit a lot of good tee balls. That one wasn’t one of them.”
Justin Thomas, a two-time major winner and the reigning PGA champion, charged during his afternoon round, at one point getting it to 7-under for the day before he bogeyed 17 and 18 to finish at 5-under, four shots off the lead.
“Yeah, it sucks, there’s no other way to say it,” Thomas said of his finish. “To throw away a 7-under … but at the same time, you get out of position out here and it’s going to bite you. So, I had way, way, way more good happen to think too much about those last two holes. There’s exponentially more positives than negatives today and if anything I’ll just try to use it to get me going on the weekend.”
Cameron Young, one of the best players in the past year-plus, was knocking on the door of Kitayama’s lead, getting to 8-under before he bogeyed 17 and doubled 18 to tumble to 4-under for the tournament.
Earlier in the day, Xander Schauffele, a buddy of Kitayama’s who lives near him in Las Vegas, shot a 2-under 70 to get to 6-under, three off the lead.
That’s also where Canadian Corey Conners is after shooting the low-round of the day, 66.
Also in the mix near the top of the leaderboard are U.S. Open champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, who shot 69 and is 5-under, Patrick Cantlay, who’s also 5-under, and Adam Scott and Scottie Scheffler, who are both 4-under.
That’s a lot of big-time players nipping at the heels of Kitayama, who’s seeking his first PGA Tour victory after winning tournaments in Asia, Europe and on the Sunshine Tour.
Kitayama believes he’s due. He has finished runner-up three times in 2022, including a loss to Rahm in Mexico and Schauffele at the Scottish Open.
“I’ve put myself in good spots,” Kitayama said. “I’m just trying to get that win. 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. You get a couple good breaks and it’s your tournament, really. So, I’ve just got to try to be right up there until the end.”
Kitayama embraces the winding road he has had to travel.
“Not finding success early here [on the PGA Tour] was … disappointing, but it took me somewhere else to grow,” he said. “And it was growing more than just in golf. You get to experience the different cultures, travel. 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 just dealing with adversity.
“When you’re in a random country in Asia and you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going, it’s pretty frustrating and honestly kind of scary a little bit. No one speaks your language. I think that helps you just kind of just grow, just kind of learn from that experience of being in an uncomfortable situation.”
Kitayama looked quite comfortable on Friday taking the lead.
Now, he’ll try to remain as comfortable attempting to hold that lead over the weekend.