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 the Orlando, Fla., layout.
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, sitting at 9-under 207.
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 US 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.
PGA — Rookie Nico Echavarria of Colombia ran off four straight birdies early in his round and finished with a 7-under 65 for a two-shot lead in the Puerto Rico Open as he goes for his first PGA victory.
Fellow rookie Carson Young, who led the opening two rounds at Grand Reserve, had to birdie the last hole for a 71 and was Echavarria’s closest pursuer.
Young began with a four-shot lead, and the 28-year-old Colombian made up ground quickly with an eagle on the par-5 second hole and then four straight birdies starting at the fourth.
He went out in 30 and already had the lead when they made the turn.
“It was a dream start,” Echavarria said. “You never think you’re going to shoot 6 under on the front nine the third round, so I knew it had to be a low one because [Young] had a big lead. I gave myself some really good chances on the front nine, putter was hot.”
Echavarria was at 17-under 199. Sam Stevens (65) and Nate Lashley (67) were four shots behind.
The winner earns a spot in The Players Championship next week with its $25 million purse, along with spots in the PGA Championship and a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour. It does not come with an invitation to the Masters because the Puerto Rico Open is held the same week as the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
LPGA — Defending champion Jin Young Ko shot a second consecutive 7-under 65 to take a two-stroke lead over Nelly Korda into the final round of the Women’s World Championship in Singapore.
Ko had a 54-hole total of 14-under 202 after another weather-delayed day at the Sentosa Golf Club. She birdied four of her first five holes and two of her last three.
Americans held the other leading positions.
Korda shot 68 Saturday and was in second place, followed by first-round leader Elizabeth Szokol (70), who had a 70 and was three behind Ko and in third place, tied with Allisen Corpuz, who also shot 70.
Second-round leader Danielle Kang was in fifth place after a 72, four strokes behind Ko.
No. 1-ranked Lydia Ko shot 70 and was at 7-under, seven strokes behind.