Surprise: Kitayama takes the lead in the Honda Classic

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Kurt Kitayama entered the Honda Classic with 25 previous PGA Tour appearances, most of them ending in missing the cut.

He’s on track to do a little better this week.

Kitayama – ranked No. 289 in the world – was nearly flawless at PGA National on Thursday, shooting a 6-under 64 to take a one-shot lead over Rory Sabbatini at the Honda Classic. It was Kitayama’s best score in 69 rounds on the PGA Tour, fueled by a best streak of four straight birdies on his back nine.

And he calls himself a surprise leader, even if he did not expect such a start.

“Maybe not a start like this, but I felt like I was playing well, and I started to figure out my putting to find that kind of round,” said Kitayama, a California native and former golfer from the United States. ‘UNLV who missed cuts 64% of the time – 16 out of 25 – in rounds.

Other early first-round finishers Peter Uihlein, Aaron Rai and Andrew Kozan all shot 67s and were three shots behind. Brooks Koepka, a Palm Beach County native essentially playing a home game this week, was in a squad at 68. And Joaquin Niemann, the winner at Genesis last week, was 4 under at 12 before giving it all up and settling for a draw. by 70.

“I haven’t done anything to really deserve to be 4 or 5 under,” Koepka said. “It’s a good score here. Just a little ho-hum around.”

After several days of off-course drama coming from the words of Phil Mickelson, the desires of Greg Norman and the PGA Tour offense, there was perhaps hope that events on the course would come back to the fore.

Norman decided he wanted the opposite.

Norman – who runs LIV Golf Investments, the group funded primarily by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – offered the latest twist by posting a letter he sent to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. Norman accused Monahan of “bullying and bullying” players into staying on the tour and rejected the proposed super league Norman was working on with the Saudis.

He says players want to play. It is not known who does; many top players in recent days have insisted otherwise, and Rory McIlroy went so far as to say the idea was “dead in the water”.

“I know for a fact that many PGA players were and still are interested in playing for a new league, in addition to playing for the Tour,” Norman wrote to Monahan. “What’s wrong with that?”

Monahan said this week that players who sign up for a Saudi golf league will lose their PGA Tour membership and should not expect to get it back.

In other news, the actual golf has been played.

Kitayama hit 11 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens and beat par for the first time in five innings at Honda after finishing tied for 47th two years ago. Kitayama started on the back nine, opened with three straight birdies, then had the streak of four straight birdies – capped by a 20-footer just off the green on the par-4 6th, his 15th hole of the day.

“The course conditions are perfect,” said Kitayama. “It’s just very difficult.”

He made it look easy. Sabbathini too.

The 2011 Honda winner went a bogey-free 65 innings, birding four on the back nine. It was the first time Sabbatini had played PGA National as a pro without making a single bogey.

“I’m very aware of that,” Sabbatini said.

Neither Kitayama nor Sabbatini is a suicide bomber; Kitayama entered the week tied for 74th in touring driving distance, with Sabbatini tied for 172nd. This makes PGA National to their liking, given that it is not a course that is overpowered.

“I’m getting to that point in my game where I think I’ve outgrown what I feel like, I hate to say, really competitive here,” said Sabbatini, 45. “There are too many guys here who have a lot more firepower, so I just have to choose my path on the golf course. For me, it’s become more of a game of chess and less about throwing darts over there.”

DIVOTS: Erik Compton, two days shy of the 30th anniversary of his first of two heart transplants, was in a group that shot 69. … Sam Ryder had a solid 71, considering he put two balls in the water on the par-3 17th and made a quadruple bogey 7 there. … Hudson Swafford started 8 on six holes – three bogeys, then two doubles, then another bogey – before birdie at the par-3 7th and his first par of the day at the par-4 8th. He shot a 78. … Stewart Cink also shot 78, two shots worse than any round he had in 14 previous Honda appearances. It was Cink’s highest score on tour since a final 81 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children opened in October 2020.

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