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World No. 289 Kurt Kitayama comes out of nowhere, leads Honda Classic after Rd. 1

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Kurt Kitayama came into the Honda Classic with 25 previous appearances on the PGA Tour, most of them ending by missing the cut.

He’s on track to do a bit better this week.

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

And he qualifies as a surprise leader, considering even he didn’t expect a start like this.

“Maybe not a start like that, but I felt like I’ve been playing well, and I’ve started to figure out my putting to kind of find this kind of round,” said Kitayama, a California native and former UNLV golfer who has missed cuts 64% of the time — 16 out of 25 — in tour events.

Among the other early Round 1 finishers, Peter Uihlein, Aaron Rai and Andrew Kozan all shot 67s and were three shots back. Brooks Koepka, a Palm Beach County native basically playing a home game this week, was in a group at 68. And Joaquin Niemann, the winner at Genesis last week, was 4 under through 12 before giving it all back and settling for an even-par 70.

“I didn’t do anything to really deserve to be 4- or 5-under,” Koepka said. “That’s a great score here. Just kind of ho-hummed it around.”

After several days of off-course drama coming from Phil Mickelson’s words, Greg Norman’s wants and the PGA Tour going on the offensive, there may have been hope that on-course events would return to the forefront.

Norman decided he wanted otherwise.

Norman — who runs LIV Golf Investments, the group financed mainly by the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — offered the latest twist by releasing a letter he sent to PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan. Norman accused Monahan of “bullying and intimidating” players into staying on the tour and spurning the proposed super league Norman has been working on with the Saudis.

He says players want to play. It’s unclear who does; many top players in recent days have insisted otherwise, and Rory McIlroy went as far as to say the notion was “dead in the water.”

“I know for a fact that many PGA players were and still are interested in playing for a new league, in addition to playing for the Tour,” Norman wrote to Monahan. “What is wrong with that?”

Monahan said this week that players who sign up for a Saudi golf league will lose their PGA Tour membership and should not expect to get it back.

In other news, actual golf was played.

Full-field scores from The Honda Classic

Kitayama hit 11 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens and broke par for the first time in five rounds at the Honda after tying for 47th two years ago. Kitayama started on the back nine, opened with three consecutive birdies, then had the run of four consecutive birdies — capped by rolling in a 20-footer from just off the green on the par-4 6th, his 15th hole of the day.

“Conditions of the course are perfect,” Kitayama said. “It’s just really tough.”

He made it look easy. So did Sabbatini.

The 2011 Honda winner had a bogey-free round of 65, making four birdies on the back nine. It was the first time Sabbatini played PGA National as a pro without making a single bogey.

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

Neither Kitayama nor Sabbatini is a bomber; Kitayama entered the week tied for 74th in driving distance on tour, Sabbatini tied for 172nd. That makes PGA National to their liking, considering it’s not a course that gets overpowered.

“I’m getting to that point in my game where I think I’ve gotten past where I feel like, I hate to say it, truly competitive out here,” the 45-year-old Sabbatini said. “There’s too many guys out here that have much more firepower, so I’ve just got to kind of pick and choose my way around the golf course. To me, it’s become more of a chess game and less about throwing some darts out there.”

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