ORLANDO, Fla. — Kurt Kitayama steadied himself down the stretch Saturday at Bay Hill, closing with two birdies over the last three holes to escape with an even-par 72 and a one-shot lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Now comes the hard part for Kitayama, a 30-year-old Californian going after his first PGA Tour victory.
Defending champion Scottie Scheffler had five birdies over his last seven holes in warm gusts that made Bay Hill tough as ever. He finished with a 68 and was one shot behind, along with Viktor Hovland of Norway (66).
Hovland finished runner-up to Scheffler a year ago at Bay Hill.
The rest of the contenders are what was to be expected with a $20 million event and every PGA Tour member from the top 50 in the world.
Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Max Homa all were within range of Kitayama if he were to lose ground or if Bay Hill was baked and brittle as it typically is for the final round.
For now, Kitayama held his own.
“Just proud of the way I fought,” he said.
His two-shot lead was gone when he sent his drive well to the right and out-of-bounds on the par-5 fourth hole, and he went out in 39 as Hovland planted himself at the top and McIlroy made his move with a remarkable bogey-free round of 68.
“I think any time you can go bogey-free on the weekend at Bay Hill you’re doing something right,” McIlroy said. “I got myself right into the tournament, into the thick of things for tomorrow.”
Two shots behind Kitayama was Tyrrell Hatton of England, who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first U.S. victory in 2020, the last PGA Tour event before the COVID-19 pandemic. He also played bogey-free for a 66.
There was plenty of evidence of trouble at Bay Hill, as always.
Corey Conners of Canada was among four players who had at least a share of the lead at one point Saturday, only to shoot 40 on the back nine. He finished with a shot into the 18th that caromed off the rocks, into the rough and then trickled back down the rocks. He made bogey for a 75.
Spieth opened bogey-bogey playing in the final group with Kitayama. He still was within two shots of the lead but then went the final 12 holes with no birdies and one bogey for a 74. Thomas played bogey-free until missing a 4-foot par putt on the last hole for a 72.
Homa was 4 under through his opening four holes, only to drop four shots the rest of the way until a birdie on the 16th for a 71. He was five behind, along with Cameron Young (72).
Xander Schauffele went left off the tee far too often, and with water down the left side of the par-5 sixth, that miss led to double bogey. He had a 75 and was six behind along with Patrick Cantlay, who had only two birdies in his round of 74.
Still, this final round could be wide open.
Kitayama was at 9-under 207. A three-time winner worldwide, his search for that first PGA Tour title has been stopped by some of the game’s best players — Jon Rahm in the Mexico Open, Schauffele in the Scottish Open, McIlroy at the CJ Cup in South Carolina.
Now he has to contend with a host of top players, and Scheffler is sure to get his attention. Scheffler already has successfully defended one title this year at the WM Phoenix Open.
He took care of both par 5s on the back nine, hit a lob wedge at a scary pin on the 13th for birdie, and saved his best for the par-3 17th. Even with the wind at his back, his only hope was to hit something that stayed on the brick-hard green.
The first thought was a soft 9-iron. He felt the wind switch and decided to hammer 9-iron, and it settled 4 feet for birdie. Scheffler capped off his birdie-birdie-birdie finish with an approach to 6 feet on the 18th.
Now the Masters champion is in range of another title that could be enough to take him back to No. 1 in the world. Scheffler expects the sternest test of the week.
“Should be another fun one,” he said, alluding to the course and the contenders. “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.”
Rahm is in danger of losing the top ranking. He opened with a 65 and followed with two straight 76s. He made five straight bogeys around the turn in the third round.