GARDENS OF PALM BEACH, FLORIDA — Kurt Kitayama entered the Honda Classic with 25 previous PGA Tour outings, the majority of which ended with him missing the cut.
This week, he’s on track to do a little better.
Kitayama, who is rated No. 289 in the world, scored a 6-under 64 at PGA National on Thursday to grab a one-shot lead over Rory Sabbatini at the Honda Classic. Kitayama’s highest score on the PGA Tour in 69 rounds was driven by a career-high run of four straight birdies on his back nine.
And he qualifies as a surprise leader, given that he didn’t expect such a strong start.
“Maybe not a great start, but I felt like I’ve been playing well, and I’ve started to work out my putting to sort of find this kind of round,” Kitayama, a California native and former UNLV golfer, said.
Peter Uihlein, Aaron Rai, and Andrew Kozan, the four early Round 1 finishers, all shot 67s and were three strokes back. Brooks Koepka, a Palm Beach County native who is essentially playing in his hometown this week, was in a group of 68 players. And last week’s victor, Joaquin Niemann, was 4 under through 12 before giving it all back and settling for an even-par 70.
“I didn’t do anything to earn a 4- or 5-under finish,” Koepka said. “This is a fantastic score. “I just ho-hummed it about.”
After many days of off-course turmoil involving Phil Mickelson’s statements, Greg Norman’s demands, and the PGA Tour’s attack, there was some hope that on-course events would take center stage.
Norman made the decision that he didn’t want it that way.
Norman, who is the CEO of LIV Golf Investments, a company primarily funded by the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, added the latest twist by releasing a letter he wrote to PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan. Norman accused Monahan of “bullying and threatening” players into staying on the tour and rejecting Norman’s proposed super league with the Saudis.
Players, he claims, want to play. It’s unclear who does; many great players have stated recently that they don’t, and Rory McIlroy even went so far as to declare the idea is “dead in the water.”
Norman replied to Monahan, “I know for a fact that several PGA players were and still are interested in playing for a new league, in addition to playing for the Tour.” “What’s the matter with that?”
Players who join a Saudi golf league will lose their PGA Tour membership, according to Monahan, and will not be able to reclaim it.
In other news, golf was really played.
After tied for 47th two years ago, Kitayama hit 11 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens, and broke par for the first time in five rounds at the Honda. Kitayama began on the back nine, making three consecutive birdies before going on a four-birdie streak, highlighted by a 20-footer from just off the green on the par-4 6th, his 15th hole of the day.
“The course conditions are ideal,” Kitayama added. “It’s just extremely difficult.”
He made it appear simple. Sabbatini felt the same way.
The 2011 Honda winner shot a 65 with no bogeys and four birdies on the back nine. Sabbatini played PGA National for the first time as a pro without making a single bogey.
Sabbatini admitted, “I’m completely aware of it.”
Kitayama and Sabbatini aren’t bombers; Kitayama was tied for 74th in driving distance on tour this week, while Sabbatini was tied for 172nd. Because PGA National isn’t a course that gets overpowered, it’s a good fit for them.
“I’m getting to the point in my game where I think I’ve gotten passed the point where I feel like I’m actually competitive out here,” Sabbatini, 45, said. “There are far too many men out here with far more firepower than me, so I’ll just have to pick and choose my way around the golf course.” It’s become more of a chess game to me, rather than just throwing darts out there.”
DIVOTS: Erik Compton was in a group that shot 69, two days shy of the 30th anniversary of his first of two heart transplants. Sam Ryder had a 71 despite hitting two balls into the water on the par-3 17th and making a quadruple-bogey 7…. Hudson Swafford was 8 over after six holes — three bogeys, two doubles, and another bogey — before birdieing the par-3 7th and recording his first par of the day on the par-4 8th. He made a 78 on the course… Stewart Cink shot 78 as well, two shots worse than any of his previous 14 Honda appearances. Cink had not shot an 81 on the PGA Tour since the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October 2020.