12 Mar 2020

Kurt Kitayama: The only way is up for the American hotshot

Kurt Kitayama made his way into the history books last year when he became the fastest player to two European Tour wins with his triumph in the desert at the Oman Open coming just three months after victory in the Mauritius Open. The American, who had secured his playing privileges through Qualifying School just a few months earlier, went on to enjoy a superb rookie season by finishing 14th on the Race to Dubai, narrowly missing out on the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award to Robert MacIntyre.

It was really nice to become the fastest player to two European Tour victories with the win in Oman,” said Kitayama, who achieved the feat after just 11 events following his win in just his second in Mauritius.

“I had a horrendous third round start in really tough conditions so to come back and win the way I did was really satisfying. It gave me a massive confidence boost as I thought my game had slumped after the first part of the Desert Swing. The win at Al Mouj Golf let me know that what I was doing in practice was right.”

Aside from his two victories, Kitayama enjoyed plenty more success throughout the season including back-to-back top three finishes in Rolex Series events at the Italian Open and Turkish Airlines Open. The latter saw the Californian agonisingly miss out on the biggest win of his career in a six-man play-off under the floodlights at the Montgomerie Maxx.

“That was a pretty incredible tournament,” he says. “The emotions were pretty wild as I didn’t think I would even get in the play-off but the birdie at the last gave me the opportunity. And then to have a putt to win it was pretty crazy and hard to take. But it was a great experience even though it was a real rollercoaster ride.”

EUROPEAN TOUR ANOMALY

The 27 year old is somewhat of an anomaly on the European Tour with most American players taking the Korn Ferry Tour route to gaining a PGA Tour card. But Kitayama didn’t find success Stateside and found himself ranked 1174th at the end of 2017 before turning his attention to the Asian Tour where he started to come into his own with a number of top five finishes and a win in his solo outing on the Asian Development Tour.

“I’ve put in a lot of hard work over the last few years to get to where I am today,” he says. “You’ve got to go through your ups and downs like anything in life. I had some success on the mini tour events in America but when I made my way to the Korn Ferry Tour, I started to struggle which was really tough for me. Being able to bounce back and use that experience to become a better person and player was big for me.

“It made sense to come and give the Asian Tour a go and with the amount of co-sanctioned events between them and the European Tour it was sort of natural for me to go to Qualifying School and try and get a European Tour card.”

Kitayama narrowly missed out on a third European Tour triumoh last year after losing out to Tyrrell Hatton in a six-man play-off at the Turkish Airline Open

Another driving force in Kitayama coming over to the European Tour was his good friend and fellow countryman, David Lipsky. Lipsky himself used to play on the Asian Tour before earning an exemption for the European Tour in 2014 by winning the Asian Tour Order of Merit.

“David would always tell me good things about the European Tour and he has enjoyed success over here,” he says.

“You look at players like Brooks Koepka who started life out on the European Challenge Tour and is now a four-time Major winner and former World No.1 so I think the European Tour is a great global tour that can make you a special player and teach you a lot of life lessons.”

BASKETBALL DREAM

Despite now finding himself ranked 72nd in the Official World Golf Ranking, golf wasn’t always the number one sport for Kitayama. During his school years at Chico High School he was a keen basketball player who represented the school team on numerous occasions as a point guard.

“I was too short for basketball!” says Kitayama, who stands at 1.70m tall. “It got to a point where I could go further with golf so I decided to stick with that. I enjoyed playing a lot when I was younger and was a decent player and I did play a bit in college, but don’t tell my coaches that!”

While most players on the European Tour will have one eye on qualifying for Padraig Harrington’s European Ryder Cup Team in September, Kitayama’s thoughts will be focussed on trying to get in Steve Stricker’s USA Team. He will face an almighty mountain to climb if he were to make it, with the American points system mainly focussed on PGA Tour events, of which Kitayama has only played two sole PGA Tour-sanctioned tournaments since the beginning of October.

“It doesn’t help me much being one of only a few Americans on the European Tour!” he says, when asked about the banter with the European players. “It will be cool to see what happens this time around and it’s nice watching the European players trying to make Padraig Harrington’s team. Even though I play in Europe obviously I will be backing America to win the trophy.”

With Ryder Cup qualification possibly taking a back seat for this year’s tournament, what is the main focus for Kitayama this year as he looks to build on his highly impressive rookie year on the European Tour?

“Overall last season was great for me but I probably played a little bit too much,” he says. “I was exhausted by the end of the season so it was nice to learn from that and give myself the best preparation for this season. In regards to this season I want to get my World Ranking as high as possible so we will see how that pans out across the season.

He’s got a tied sixth finish already under his belt this year at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and Kitayama is already proving that last season wasn’t just a one-off. With a full year of European Tour experience to go hand-in-hand with his impressive golf game, it’s sure to be another exciting year on tour for Kitayama.

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