The knowledge from college usually lasts an eternity in golf. That players like Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth would help define golf never came as a surprise – after all, they were always the best, when they were young at university. And then there are names like Kurt Kitayama, who had other concerns to deal with while he was in college.
His teammates at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas once called him “The Project” – the project. While the junior golfer was competing with the best in his class in the country, Kitayama looked pretty hopeless. He’s only won two local titles and says he tended to pull his team down in team competitions – even though he trained more than most. “When I arrived in Las Vegas, I had big problems,” says Kitayama today. “But the guys there saw me working every day, that’s where the nickname came from.”
All the work paid off on Sunday, as Kitayama completed his project when he donned the red cardigan presented to winners in honor of famed cardigan wearer Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill Country Club.
What sweetens Kitayama’s success: The entire world elite was represented in Florida
Kitayama, 30, can now officially call himself the PGA Tour winner, it is a decisive event in his life in many ways. Financially, because he earned $3.6 million in one fell swoop, more than the 64 tournaments on the European DP World Tour that Kitayama has played in recent years combined. Sporty, because he didn’t just win any tournament, but the Arnold Palmer Invitational – a prestigious title for which almost the entire world elite plays every year. Kitayama left the top three in the world rankings in Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm and has now officially arrived in the circle of the big ones. “How lucky to win at this special place,” said the new number 19 in the world rankings.
It is the end of a journey that is not just proverbially long for Kitayama, who chose numerous detours after his difficult university years. While other Americans marched straight onto the PGA Tour, he qualified for tournaments in South Korea, Japan and India, among others. From there it went to the Asian to the South African tour for a while and finally through the tough qualifying tournaments to the DP World Tour. Kitayama made his breakthrough there with two wins in 2018 and 2019, followed by qualification for the PGA Tour in 2021.
The many sub-division tournaments around the world have helped Kitayama grow as a person
“You travel from country to country, you have to deal with the logistics, the food, the different cultures and languages,” said Kitayama after the tournament: “It helps you to grow as a person and you know in difficult situations like here today, that there are much harder things out there.” Constantly working on his golf game around the world, he became one of the longest tee shots on the tour despite his short 5’7″.
With his career so far, Kitayama tells a story that is currently worth a lot in golf, where the millions in prize money are distributed in an amazingly generous way among the top players. It therefore sometimes seems as if the elite at the top are retreating into completely different spheres and leaving the rest behind: the path is full of resistance, leads across numerous continents and requires a lot of hard work. But you can obviously fight for belonging to the top of the world purely through sport.