Kitayama takes the lead, Canadian Svensson returns five on the Honda Classic

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida — Kurt Kitayama has entered the Honda Classic with his previous 25 appearances on the PGA Tour, most of them ending in a stalemate.

He is on track to do a little better this week.

Kitayama — ranking No. 289 in the world — almost flawless at the PGA National on Thursday, scoring 6-under 64 to take an early one-shot lead over Rory Sabbatini in the Honda Classic. It was Kitayama’s best score in 69 rounds on the PGA Tour, boosted by his career-best record of four consecutive birdies in his second nine rounds.

And he qualifies as the surprise leader, considering that even he didn’t expect this kind of start.

“Maybe not that kind of start, but I feel like I’ve played well, and I’m starting to think about my nipples to find this kind of round,” said Kitayama, a California native and former UNLV golfer who has missed the cut 64% of the time — 16 of the time. 25 — in touring events.

Among players who finished other early Round 1, Peter Uihlein, Aaron Rai and Andrew Kozan all shot 67 and three shots back. Brooks Koepka, a Palm Beach County native playing basically home games this week, is in the group at 68. And Joaquin Niemann, winner at Genesis last week, was 4 under to 12 before giving it his all back and finishing for a draw-par 70.

“I didn’t do anything to really deserve 4 or 5 under,” said Koepka. “That’s a good score here. Just humming it a bit.”

Adam Svensson of Surrey, BC, is the top Canadian at 1-under. Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., Michael Gligic of Burlington, Ont., Taylor Pendrith pf Richmond Hill, Ont., and Roger Sloan of Merritt, BC, equals and Nick Taylor of Abbotsford, BC, is at 4-over.

After days of off-course drama coming from Phil Mickelson’s words, wishes of Greg Norman and the PGA Tour going on the offensive, there may be hope that on-court events will return to the forefront.

Norman decided he wanted otherwise.

Norman – who runs LIV Golf Investments, a group financed primarily by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – offered the latest change by releasing a letter he sent to PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan. Norman accused Monahan of “bullying and intimidating” players into staying on tour and rejecting the proposed super league that Norman is working on with the Saudis.

He said the players wanted to play. It is not clear who did it; 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 sure a lot of PGA players were and are still 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 signed up for the Saudi golf league would lose their PGA Tour membership and should not hope to get it back.

In other news, golf is actually being played.

Kitayama hit 11 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens and broke par for the first time in five rounds on Honda after leveling at 47th two years ago. Kitayama started with the final nine strokes, opened with three birdies in a row, then went on to run four birdies in a row — closing with a 20-footer from the court on the par-4 6, the 15th hole of the day.

“The field conditions were perfect,” said Kitayama. “This is really hard.”

He made it look easy. So did Sabbatini.

The 2011 Honda winner had 65 bogey free rounds, making four birdies on nine backs. This was Sabbatini’s first time playing at the PGA National as a pro without making a single bogey.

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

Neither Kitayama nor Sabbatini were bombers; Kitayama enters the week tied for 74 in driving distance on the tour, Sabbatini tied for 172. That makes the PGA National their favourite, considering it’s not a track to master.

“I’ve reached a point in my game where I think I’ve gotten past where I feel, I hate to say, really competitive here,” said 45-year-old Sabbatini. “There are too many people out here who have more firepower, so I just have to pick and choose my way around the golf course. To me, it’s more of a game of chess and less about throwing some darts out there. “

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

Jackson Wintringham

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