The drive to be the best has been locked into Kurt Kitayama’s personality long before he was a professional golfer.
The Chico High alumnus was serious about any sport he played, whether it was AAU basketball or golf, and was just as serious about his studies.
Kitayama has already won two events on the European Tour, has boosted his ranking to the 116th best golfer in the world and continues to gradually ascend through the professional golf standings.
But the 26-year-old doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. He’s currently ranked 19th in the Race to Dubai, the season-long competition that crowns the European Tour’s top player.
“You sacrifice a lot to do this because it’s so time-consuming,” Kitayama said Wednesday during a phone interview before beginning the Scottish Open. “It’s a grind … If you’re not practicing, you feel like you’re falling behind.”
Kitayama wrapped up Saturday’s third round of the Scottish Open by shooting a 6-under to tie for 21st place. His overall score stood at 12-under at The Renaissance Club in North Berwick, United Kingdom.
Kitayama was one of the first golf prodigies to emerge from Chico. He was first introduced to golf when he was 5 years old by a family friend. He’d tag along with his older brother, Daniel, and play rounds of golf at Butte Creek Country Club.
He’d later start receiving lessons from Butte Creek Head Pro Mike Mattingly.
“If he wanted to know something about hitting a golf ball, then we’d spend a little time with him,” Mattingly said. “He mostly did his own work. He taught himself a lot of stuff.”
Any tips Mattingly had suggested, Kitayama would instantly apply it to his game.
“He’s a sponge. You could talk to him and he would agree,” Mattingly said. “If he had trouble you’d give him your advice and he’d work and work and work. He was very easy to work with.”
Kitayama worked on his golf game but it wasn’t the main priority in his life growing up. He instead had a passion to play basketball, a sport he took up in the fourth grade.
Playing for the Chico Blazin’ Heat, an AAU basketball team, Kitayama quickly became a force on the court. He was a point guard who knew how to score, how to lead the offense and, most importantly, how to win.
“His competitiveness and leadership was unmatched,” said Kevin Wilkerson, Kitayama’s coach on the Chico Blazin’ Heat. “Everybody tells you they’re competitive – nah. Kurt is the most competitive kid I have ever coached in my life. It made him the great golfer that he is.”
Kitayama shared the court with fellow Chico High alumnus Sterling Smith, the standout basketball player who went on to play at Pitt then later transferred to Coppin State. Not only were they close friends off the court, but they were also a high-scoring tandem on the court.
“Those guys were as thick as thieves throughout high school,” Wilkerson said. “They were great kids together.”
The two only got better once they got to high school, where they helped lead Chico High to two Northern Section basketball titles.
“He was the type of player who would know what was needed. If he needed to score a lot of points, he could score. He was not selfish at all,” Mattingly said. “He’d do anything to win. He’d make free throws to win games.”
Mattingly often watched Kitayama’s basketball games at Chico High. When the time came, Mattingly started contacting college golf coaches to pique their interest in Kitayama.
It wasn’t until junior year when Kitayama, at 5-foot-7, realized he could go farther in golf than in basketball. Basketball was his main priority, his favorite sport, but he began to really take golf more seriously.
“I just knew that in golf, I could make it further,” Kitayama said. “When I was playing (golf) in college, I thought I could try this out as a profession. That was how it grew. I knew that I’d still try and play (basketball) through high school while I could to make the most of it.”
After graduating from Chico High in 2011, Kitayama attended UNLV, a top Division I golf program. He flourished at UNLV, earning an All-American honor his senior year. He got stronger, could hit the ball farther and his short game improved thanks to the guidance of the Rebels staff.
“A lot of his development came at UNLV. He was making developments in parts of his game that weren’t strong enough,” Mattingly said. “His short game needed some improvement. Las Vegas had the facilities. He could associate himself with people so that he knew how good he had to be.”
His UNLV teammate David Lipsky is also on the European Tour.
“You never quite knew what he was going to accomplish,” said Kurt’s father Cliff. “He just kept working.”
Confidence was always something Kitayama didn’t lack, Mattingly said.
“It takes an inner confidence,” Mattingly said. “If somebody can’t back it up, they’d be considered really arrogant. He could back it up.”
He wasn’t afraid to be tough on teammates and he wasn’t afraid to push others to their maximum potential.
“He can rub people the wrong way because he’s so competitive,” Wilkerson said. “Guys that wanted to play against him, you better get used to getting beat.”
When Kitayama was in eighth grade, the Chico Blazin’ Heat had lost a game by about eight points at a tournament in Reno. Prior to the game, members of the team had gone go-kart racing.
“Kurt and Sterling were upset … They said ‘we’re done with this team,’” Wilkerson recalled. “We cut the whole team but those two and then made another team because Kurt said ‘If you’re not hungry enough, we’re not playing … we’re not playing with guys who are faking this.’”
“That’s how hungry those guys were.”
His junior year of high school, Kitayama opted to not play for the Chico High boys golf team. He decided to improve his skills with the hope of earning a college scholarship. He’d then return his senior year after he officially committed with UNLV.
“I’ve definitely been called selfish. I don’t know, I guess maybe it is,” Kitayama said in a 2010 E-R article. “Some of my teammates were pretty disappointed, and I was sad to see that. But it’s what I had to do. It’s such an individual sport and to get myself to the next level, it’s the best way for me.”
After graduating from UNLV with a degree in business, he officially turned pro in 2015. He first competed on the Korn Ferry Tour, formerly the Web.com tour. He didn’t achieve much success, missing the cut in all but five events in 2016.
“If you get in a tough stretch where you’re missing cuts, it’s really tough to get back,” Kitayama said. “You have to keep thinking positive things. Keep telling yourself you’ve got to figure it out. Trick your mind, really.”
The following year was a bit of an improvement. He broke into the top 1,000 in the world golf rankings and his best finish was a tie for 11th place in the Bahamas Great Abaco Classic.
But he was still on the hunt for his first big win.
In 2018, Kitayama captured his first European Tour victory during the Afrasia Bank Mauritius Open, a co-sanctioned event from both the Asian Tour and the European Tour.
“It was amazing,” Kitayama said. “I played the Asian Tour and gave myself a lot of chances to actually pull it off and it being part of Europe really, a Europe and Asia co-sanctioned event, it was really cool. Winning doesn’t come often, so when you do win it’s such a great feeling.”
The win boosted his ranking up to 198th in the world.
“My putter was unbelievable that week,” Kitayama said. “I felt like I was making everything.”
On March 3, Kitayama added his second European Tour victory by winning the Oman Open. He won by one stroke by completing a comeback.
During the third round, Kitayama recorded a quadruple-bogey before the round was cut short because of bad light. The next day, Kitayama buried six birdies and an eagle to bring his third-round score to 71. Later that day, in the final round, Kitayama carded a 70 to pick up the win.
Back at home, many were watching Kitayama’s progress. Wilkerson said every Thursday through Sunday, he’s watching to see what Kitayama does. Mattingly also said he keeps tabs on Kitayama and will occasionally text him.
“That win where he had the lead, then all of a sudden was off the board and ended up winning, (to see) that was the greatest feeling ever,” Wilkerson said. “I’m excited for anything he does.”
Kitayama was also able to compete in his first major, taking part in the PGA Championship on May 19 at Bethpage Black Course in New York. He finished tied for 64th with a four-round score of 291.
“I played in a couple PGA events but there’s nothing like a major,” Kitayama said. “On a Monday or Tuesday, there are so many people just hanging out watching. You see the big names like Tiger (Woods), Phil (Mickelson) everyone is just watching them.”
These days, Kitayama lives a bit of a nomadic lifestyle. Each week, he’s in a different country, different time zone and competing in a different event while on the European Tour. Nothing is really routine in his daily life.
“I love it. Being able to travel the world and play golf is such a great experience,” Kitayama said. “Seeing all the different types of cultures and parts of the country and parts of the world is really cool.”
“It changes a lot. You just have to adjust on the go. See how the body feels and the sleep pattern ends up being. You have to feel it out really and keep adjusting.”
Kitayama’s next substantial goal is to make it on the PGA Tour.
“That’s the next step from here … to get to the PGA is the ultimate goal,” Kitayama said. “You play good golf and it usually takes care of itself.”
Because of Kitayama’s full schedule, he very rarely comes back to visit Chico. His parents, Cliff and Rumiko, still live in Chico and whenever he plays in the United States, they try to make the trip to watch him.
“Chico is always home. I’ll never forget where I started and where I came from and all the people that helped me get to where I am,” Kitayama said. “It’s where I was born and raised. I attributed a lot of it from (Chico).”