ORLANDO, Fla. (Saturday, March 4, 2023) – Kurt Kitayama will sleep on a 54-hole lead Saturday night knowing he’ll play in the final group Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. Sleeping soundly, however, may prove difficult given the list of accomplished players hoping to chase him down.
Seeking his first career PGA TOUR victory, the 30-year-old Kitayama birdied two of his final three holes at Bay Hill Club & Lodge for an even-par round in difficult conditions and retained the outright lead for the second straight day. His three-day total of 207 leaves him one stroke ahead of defending champion Scottie Scheffler and World No. 11 Viktor Hovland.
Tyrrell Hatton, the 2020 API champion who tied for second last year with Hovland and Billy Horschel, enters Sunday two strokes off the lead, while the World No. 3, 2018 API winner and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy lurks three shots behind, tied for fifth with Harris English. Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Max Homa – all top-20 players with accomplished resumes – are also in the top 10 and within five strokes of Kitayama.
To say Sunday is teed up to offer a final round filled with dramatics would be an understatement. Kitayama and Hovland will culminate the day as the final tee time at 1:20 p.m.
“I think you just kind of accept it,” Kitayama said when asked how he will handle playing the underdog role amongst so many of golf’s biggest names. “You just look at the leaderboard, the rankings and what they have done. People will probably be cheering for them louder, you know. So there's nothing I can do. Just embrace it.”
This year’s final-round leaderboard has a similar feel to 2022 when Hovland entered the final round in third place, one shot off the lead, with Scheffler trailing him by a stroke. They played together in the second-to-last group, while McIlroy and Hatton were also in the mix.
“Yeah, should be another fun one,” Scheffler said. “That's what's exciting about our new schedule. I think we're going to have a lot more of this stuff. I'm sure Viktor's looking to beat me this year and I'm looking to do the same. There's a lot of talented guys on the leaderboard though. I'm not going to be too focused on anybody else other than myself going into tomorrow. But there are so many talented players out there. It should be a really fun battle.”
Hovland and Hatton tied for the low score of the day on Saturday, both shooting bogey-free rounds of 66.
“I’ve just got to keep doing what I've been doing - I've been hitting a lot of fairways and greens,” Hovland said. “Last year was -- I didn't quite hit it as good as I did earlier in the week. But even then I still feel like I should have won last year if I had a half-decent short game last year. I still hit it good enough to score, but I feel like I'm stroking it well this year.”
With winds gusting up to 25 miles per hour Saturday, 41 of the 72 players who made the cut shot over par. McIlroy was asked whether the conditions reminded him of playing in Europe, where cross winds and slick greens can make scoring conditions difficult.
“I see it more like a U.S. Open,” McIlroy replied. “I think that's sort of how it feels with the thick rough and the firm greens and just the real tricky conditions.”