RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links


Arnold Palmer Invitational defending champ on opposite end of the leaderboard just one year later

March 07, 2024

Cliff Hawkins

ORLANDO — While Justin Thomas was explaining to reporters Thursday how golf can beat you up and how the game wasn’t beating him up as badly as it did last year, Kurt Kitayama was in the midst of getting two black eyes and a bloody nose.

At least figuratively.

Bay Hill was landing rights and lefts, and Kitayama, the defending champion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, couldn’t get in any licks of his own. A bogey at the sixth left him with a fat lip. Then he bogeyed seven. He got rocked back with a double bogey at the par-4 eighth and then doubled over from another bogey at the ninth.

“I was just fighting myself,” he would say later in an appropriate choice of words.

In all, he would go on to play a nine-hole stretch from the sixth to the 15th hole in eight over par. Only a late rally enabled him to salvage a six-over 78 in the opening round of the 59th edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. When he left the scoring trailer, Kitayama was smiling like a guy who lost a bar brawl but still walked out under his own power at closing time.

How does it happen? How does a guy breakthrough for his first PGA Tour title—knocking out the likes of Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler—and then return a year later to the same venue and get pummeled against the ropes?

“I don’t know,” the insouciant California native said. “It’s like, I don’t know, I should feel pretty comfortable here, but that doesn’t matter when you’re hitting bad shots. And bad shots on this golf course really can penalize you.”

Ranked 37th in the world, Kitayama, 31, hasn’t played great this year, but it’s not like he has struggled either. He posted strong Friday rounds at the two Hawaii stops—62 at the Sentry and 64 at the Sony Open—and four rounds in the 60s earned him a T-8 at the WM Phoenix Open.


Cliff Hawkins

A closing 75 at Riviera Country Club scuttled a promising weekend at the Genesis Invitational. Then came Thursday’s puzzling effort in his first career title defense.

“It was tough out there. I couldn’t buy a par,” Kitayama said. “You play out of the rough, even if you miss the fairway just a little, you’re going to have trouble. I tried to hang in there best I could, not knowing how I was going to square up the clubface.”

A glimmer came just in time, though. He birdied the reachable par-5 16th, got up and down to save par from the front bunker at 17, and then he coaxed in a nine-footer at the par-4 home hole for a birdie.

“I was just trying to find something, just to give me something going into the next round,” he said with a shrug.

He excused himself, off to the range. “I have to go see if I did find something,” he explained. “Right now, I need to find a few shots, hope to make the cut and go from there.”

He smiled again. He seemed to be taking it well.

“Yeah, well, sh** happens,” Kitayama said, allowing himself to chuckle. “I’ll be all right.”

You wouldn’t have known he was in second-last place in the 69-man field. Last year he was tops in a field of 120 players.

You have to admire a guy who can take a punch.