ORLANDO, Fla. (AP)Kurt Kitayama is used to battling some of the best players as he searches for his first PGA Tour win. His biggest challenge Friday was windy Bay Hill, and he handled that just fine with a 4-under 68 for an early lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Jon 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.
“How would I characterize it? What do you think I’m going to say? Excuse my language, but it’s (expletive) 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.”
Xander 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 the bogey – and played the final 16 holes without a bogey. He shot 70 and was three behind.
Corey Conners had the low round of the morning, somehow managing seven birdies in his round of 66. “Felt like a 62,” he said.
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.
He was at 9-under 135.
Defending champion Scottie Scheffler, Cameron Young and Jordan Spieth were among those playing in the afternoon, when the wind was at its strongest.
Kitayama has been making a name for himself after he finally reached the PGA Tour.
The 30-year-old Californian who now lives in Las Vegas spent two years on the Korn Ferry Tour without much success, and then toiled across Asia and Europe over the next four years, winning three times.
He went toe-to-toe with Rahm in the Mexico Open and lost by one last spring. He finished one behind Schauffele in the Scottish Open in the summer. And then he went up against Rory McIlroy at the CJ Cup in South Carolina in the fall, finishing runner-up again.
“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.”
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.”
Rahm is still in the mix, too, even with a tough finish.
He didn’t convert a few good birdie looks early in his round, and then it was a struggle at the end. He drove into the water on the par-5 sixth for double bogey. Two holes later, he had a 30-foot birdie putt that ran about 4 feet by because of the wind, and missed that to take a bogey. He also bogeyed the last hole at No. 9.
“For most of the day, I managed it,” Rahm said. “It’s just the last five holes. Even though I didn’t feel like I was making bad swings, I just couldn’t quite get it going and finished poorly the last stretch.”
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