Kitayama makes us all proud
For a few hours there, we were all pretty united, weren't we?
From sports bars to restaurants and gymnasiums to private homes, it seemed almost every sports fan (and fans of Chico in general) around was glued to the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday to cheer on one of our own, Kurt Kitayama.
The 2011 Chico High graduate entered the final round of the tournament as the leader, and after more than his share of challenges, went on to win the tournament — his first victory as a member of the PGA Tour — in a style that left all of us proud.
After all, there's nothing those of us in the north state love more than a good old-fashioned “we showed them big-timers, didn't we?” story. That made rooting for Kitayama in the final round against the biggest names in golf all the more enjoyable.
One example: On the morning of the tournament, Patrick McDonald, a well-read golf writer with CBS sports, wrote about the final round and noted there were an awful lot of good golfers who had a great chance of winning the tournament. You know, the Jordan Spieths and Rory McIlroys and Scottie Schefflers and such; he mentioned 11 names in all as likely contenders for the Palmer title.
You know who McDonald didn't mention in his finalround preview — not once?
That would be Kurt Kitayama, who was leading the tournament.
As anyone who has ever sliced a 3-wood could tell you, nothing comes easily on a golf course. Nothing has come easily for Kitayama in his career, either; he bounced around nearly a half-dozen different tours worldwide before earning his PGA Tour card in September 2021.
Given that resilience, could his first victory have come any other way?
Some of the broadcasters basically wrote him off Sunday after his triple-bogey on the par-4 9th cost him his lead. One noted that golfers just don't win tournaments after knocking two balls out of bounds in the same tournament, or after a final-round triple-bogey. All noted the charges being made by Spieth and McIlroy and company.
But, in a manner befitting of his entire career, Kitayama persevered. Within six holes, the announcers had stopped talking about Spieth, and were instead displaying photos of Kitayama in his days as a basketball player at Chico High.
“Things went south on nine, and all of a sudden, I am not leading anymore,” Kitayama said. “I just fought back hard, and I am proud of myself for that. … I told (caddie Tim Tucker) I didn't feel rattled at all. He said, `You look good. We'll just keep trucking along; we'll get it back.'”
Get it back, indeed. While others on the leaderboard faltered through a series of missed putts, Kitayama put up seven straight pars before regaining the lead with a 13-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th.
On the 18th, needing just a two-putt to win the tournament, his long birdie putt came as close to going into the hole as possible, practically hanging on the lip. It seemed fitting that after such a long, uphill battle, he was able to take a deep breath and tap one in for his first career win — a win worth $3.6 million, nearly doubling his career earnings.
You can't put a price on what that win meant to people all across the north state. Word of Kitayama's back-9 charge spread through phone calls and over social media, with thousands of comments flying around Facebook and Twitter. For a few hours there, almost nobody was arguing about politics; they were uniting behind one of our own, another reminder of the unifying spirit that is so unique to the world of sports.
It was a great day to be a sports fan, and an even better day to be from the Chico area. Congratulations, Kurt, for making us all proud on a great day of much-needed unity for the north state.