DUBAI, U.A.E. — The European Tour’s season-long Race to Dubai will end at this week’s DP World Tour Championship with one of five possible winners—Bernd Wiesberger, Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Shane Lowry and Matt Fitzpatrick. It’s going to be a fun watch. But perhaps even more interesting, and certainly just as competitive, is the two-man showdown for the Old World’s Rookie of the Year honors. Sitting 11th and 12th on the points list, respectively, Robert MacIntyre and Kurt Kitayama will play alongside each other in the opening round over the Earth Course at the Jumeirah Golf Estates as they fend off each other over the final 72 holes of the 2018-’19 season.
MacIntyre begins the week with a narrow 90.6-point advantage over Kitayama, but no matter the final result both will surely look back on their first seasons on the European Tour with a deserved mixture of pride and pleasure. Where MacIntyre has been the more consistent of the two—three second-place finishes and five other top 10s dot his 29-event record—his American counterpart has won twice in 30 starts, at the Mauritius Open and the Oman Open, and only two weeks ago was one of the unlucky quintet losing to Tyrrell Hatton in a six-man playoff for the Turkish Airlines Open.
Indeed, Kitayama, 26, has come a long way since, at the urging of fellow California native David Lipsky, he made the switch from the Asian Tour. Not that it was an easy transition, at least at first. A year ago, Kitayama was working his way through all three stages of European Tour Qualifying School and 14 high-stress rounds of golf.
All of which is a long way from the chance this week to win $3 million, the biggest-ever first-place check in golf. But Kitayama has become used to changing priorities. Where once he would have been happy enough to keep his card, the former All-American at UNLV long ago revised that relatively conservative target.
“The first win in Mauritius changed my outlook,” says Kitayama, who would join Peter Uihlein (2013) and Brooks Koepka (2014) as the only Americans to win top rookie honors in Europe. “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.”
Indeed, Kitayama has impressed more than one educated eye. Swing coach Pete Cowen calls him “a player with great potential,” remarking particularly on the diminutive American’s prodigious length off the tee. “He’s fast, and that is a great thing to be in modern golf,” Cowen says.
Former European Tour player turned TV pundit Jay Townsend is another fan of his young compatriot’s all-around game.
“I’ve watched Kurt quite a bit, and he looks like a player to me,” Townsend says. “He moves it out there off the tee and holes out particularly well. He did go off the boil a little bit in the summer after the two wins. But Turkey turned things around for him again. He seems to have no fear. Maybe the only mild criticism I would level at him is that he struggles a bit in a strong left-to-right wind. He plays pretty much everything with a fade. His go-to shot is a left-to-right bomb.”
Kitayama is a fast-learner, though. And he is just as quick to acknowledge the debt he owes to the ever-varying conditions found on the European Tour.
“My game has changed and improved by adjusting to everywhere I’ve been,” he says. “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.”
The eventual winner of this MacIntyre-Kitayama tilt is difficult to predict. Still, one thing is for sure: In one of the highest-quality classes of recent times (Italy’s Guido Migliozzi has also won twice), the rookie of the year on the European Tour is going to have the look of a future star.