Tigers, great white sharks, and hawks; in terms of nicknames, golf thought it had the top of the food chain covered.
That was until the king of the monsters – “Quadzilla” – roared onto the scene in March.
Victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational sealed a first PGA Tour title for Kurt Kitayama, securing him $3.6 million in prize money – almost doubling his eight-year earnings on Tour in a single paycheck.
Fortunately for the American, he has big pockets. At least that is according to fellow pro Xander Schauffele, who dubbed his compatriot “Quadzilla” in honor of his imposing thigh muscles when the duo played together on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2016.
These days they are smaller, Kitayama insists, but that has not stopped him from embracing the name that has gone viral since his maiden triumph.
“You could tell the pants were fitting tight, he called me out on it,” Kitayama told CNN’s Don Riddell.
“When Xander and I were playing on the Korn Ferry Tour they got pretty big … I got a little overweight I’d say.
“Also when I was working out, the one thing I loved doing was squatting. So I used to do it a lot and that was the only thing I lifted pretty much.”
Yet it is a much older nickname that best epitomizes Kitayama: “The Project.”
Bestowed upon him while he cut his teeth as a college golfer, it is a title that reflects how much he had to improve, as well as capturing the hard work and perseverance that drove Kitayama along a long and winding road to his first PGA Tour win – two months on from his 30th birthday.
A talented junior basketball star despite his diminutive 5-feet 7-inch frame, a young Kitayama harbored dreams of the NBA, not the PGA. As starting point guard for the Chico Blazin’ Heat, the Californian led his high school team to two Northern Section titles before hoop dreams took a back seat to golf.
“(Basketball) was my favorite sport growing up … that was probably the dream until I realized I wasn’t going anywhere with that,” Kitayama said.
“When I got to college, golf really was the only focus.”
At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), Kitayama enjoyed success on a renowned golf program, yet his early trajectory was a far cry from the breakneck rises of prodigious amateurs like Tiger Woods and Tom Kim.
Having “struggled” through his first two seasons, it wasn’t until his senior year that Kitayama even gave himself a chance at making it pro. In 2015 that aim was realized, but three years later – having played mostly on the PGA Tour’s developmental Web.com Tour (now the Korn Ferry Tour) – he was still floating outside the top 1,000 in the world golf rankings.
Yet 2018, spent on the Asian Tour, would prove to be a turning point. Having secured his spot on the European Tour (now the DP World Tour) via qualifying school in November, by March 2019 he had become the fastest player in history to tally two European Tour wins after victories at the Mauritius Open and Oman Open respectively.
By the year’s end, he was inside the world’s top 75 players. In September 2021, a long climb to the top of the sport was completed when a tied-11th finish at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship rewarded a 28-year-old Kitayama with his PGA Tour card.
Late bloomer? “It just happened that way,” he reflected.
“I’ve just always looked at getting better each year and not thinking too far ahead; just continue to keep moving up.
“Hard work has gotten me to where I am now … When I’m doing something that I really want to do, I’m willing to put in the work and sacrifice social time with friends or something to get better.”
By the time he arrived in Orlando for his 50th PGA Tour start – and event debut – at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Kitayama had risen to world No. 46, yet a first win remained agonizingly elusive.
On three occasions in 2022, Kitayama had finished runner-up to some of the game’s best players by a single stroke: first to US Open champion Jon Rahm at the Mexico Open, then to world No. 7 Schauffele at the Scottish Open, and again to four-time major winner Rory McIlroy at the CJ Cup.
Kitayama looked on course for his most agonizing near-miss yet when, approaching the ninth tee with a two-shot final round lead at Bay Hill, a drive out-of-bounds spiraled into a triple bogey.
Six consecutive pars signaled a strong response, yet Kitayama and four others shared the lead with three holes remaining. By the finish, just two strokes would separate the top seven players.
“I feel like I was able to keep it pretty level all the way through, even after the triple,” Kitayama recalled.
“But looking back at it and seeing how that leaderboard changed so much, it was crazy really, it was so up-and-down. I was talking to my friends back home; they were pumped but then they were also so nervous watching it.”
A 14-foot birdie putt at the 17th nudged Kitayama ahead before a stunning 50-foot effort at the final hole left the American with a simple tap-in for his first Tour win.
Having used the experience of his three-runner up finishes to navigate the tense denouement, it was fitting that Kitayama finished one shot ahead of his CJ Cup heartbreaker, McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman was among the first to congratulate the new champion, embracing Kitayama shortly after his closing putt.
“I’m really happy for Kurt. He’s been playing well for a while now and I’m happy to see him get his first win,” McIlroy told reporters.
“He’s persevered and played wherever he could get starts and all of a sudden he’s won one of the biggest events on the PGA TOUR, so good for him.”
Victory rocketed Kitayama to a career high world No. 19 and made him the first player to win on his Arnold Palmer Invitational debut since Robert Gamez 33 years ago.
His life since has been, in a word, “chaos.” After a landslide of media duties and sponsor interest, Kitayama is looking forward to getting back to golfing.
“It’s a new experience and something I’m going to figure out how to handle and see how it affects my play,” he said.
“I’m just going to keep trying to improve and keep trying to keep getting better to put myself in that situation more often – trying to become a more consistent player.
“A lot’s going to change though, I’m just going to have to get used to it.”
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