An American soars at Dubai Desert Classic, but not the one you'd expect
To the surprise of no one, an American golfer of Japanese extraction is prominent on the leader board at the end of the opening round in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Hang on though. The man in question is not the highest-ranked player in the field, PGA champion and World No. 4, Collin Morikawa.
No. Seven under par after a 65 that included six birdies and an eagle, the name in the frame is Kurt Kitayama. The 28-year-old Californian, a regular on the European Tour since 2019, is one shot behind Richard Sterne of South Africa and one shot ahead of another South African, Justin Harding, and Sergio Garcia.
Kitayama was twice a winner in his maiden season in Europe—he claimed the Mauritius and Oman Open titles—and came close to “rookie of the year” honors on the Old World circuit, only to be pipped to the crown by Scotsman Robert MacIntyre.
“The first win in Mauritius changed my outlook,” he said at the 2019 DP World Tour Championship, also in Dubai. “After that, trying to get here [to the DP World] was the ultimate goal. All in all though, it has been great to come over here and play. It’s been a new experience for me as a person. Learning how to travel and how to manage everything you can only get better. I’ve definitely learned how to play different courses, especially links. That was really different for me. One time I used my 3-wood for a shot just off the green. I never do anything like that in the states. So I’ve been learning new shots all the time. My game has just grown.”
That growth understandably stalled in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic restricted Kitayama to only eight starts on the European Tour. Encouragingly for this week, however, his best finish arrived at this tournament exactly a year ago, when the former All-American at UNLV pulled up in a tie for sixth place. So he knows his way around the Majlis course at the Emirates Club, a fact that became almost immediately apparent when he played the back-nine (his front) in 32. The highlight was an eagle 2 at the sometimes drivable 359-yard 17th. After a strong tee shot came up just short of the putting surface, Kitayama promptly chipped-in.
“I just holed it,” was his smiling verdict. “It was nice.”
And probably just as well. Along with many others in the 132-strong field—most notably World No. 5, Tyrrell Hatton, who made only one birdie in a disappointing 76—Kitayama had the occasional problem on greens he was hardly alone in describing as “crusty.”
“On certain holes I felt like I had to tap the ball down the grain, which it made it really tricky,” he said. “The wind picked up a little bit too. So down-grain downwind putts were a little dicey.”
Still, having competed in only last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where he finished T-35, since missing the cut in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last October, Kitayama was understandably more than happy with the solidity of his performance and his exceptional score.
“I played as many games as I could back home and tried to feel ‘under the gun’ pressure like I would in tournament conditions,” he explained. “That’s pretty much how I tried to stay sharp over the last few months. But I haven't played this well in quite a while, so it’s nice to get in a round like this.”