ORLANDO – It can be hard to measure a caddie’s role in victory. Some simply carry the bag, while others seem to perform an endless array of duties just short of hitting the shot. For Kurt Kitayama, who won his first PGA Tour title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday, veteran looper Tim Tucker was the calming influence when Kitayama needed him most.
But let’s first rewind to last month, at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where Kitayama said he fumed inside. In the final round at Pebble Beach Golf Links, his caddie at the time, Bryan Martin, misclubbed him on the second hole and his shot airmailed the green, leading to a double bogey. He subsequently tumbled 27 spots on payday after shooting 76 (T-29). Another legitimate shot at winning for the first time fell by the wayside.
“That one was very disappointing,” Kitayama said in his winner’s press conference on Sunday. “I felt like I was comfortable enough in that situation and that things just didn’t go my way early and I was more probably mad than anything. It just happens. Just try not to think about it too much.”
Did Kitayama punch a wall or kick his golf bag? He laughed at the thought. “Like, internally, you kind of, you’re fuming,” Kitayama said.
But Kitayama did make one drastic decision while he was fuming. He fired Martin, his caddie of four years.
When asked to confirm the reason for the dismissal, Kitayama didn’t want to throw someone he still counts as a friend under the bus, but he didn’t refute the story either. “I just felt like it was time, a couple of bad things had happened and tough situations I feel like,” Kitayama said in explaining his caddie change. “We had a really good run.”
Seeking a replacement, Kitayama reached out to his brother, a longtime caddie at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, who had built a relationship with Tucker. Best known in golf circles as Bryson DeChambeau’s bagman for eight Tour victories, including the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot and the 2021 Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tucker has caddied at Bandon and runs a transportation business at the golf resort.
“They have always stayed in contact, and this was just an opportunity that happened to arise,” Kitayama said.
After parting ways with his caddie at Pebble, Kitayama played the following week at the WM Phoenix Open and Tucker happened to be there for some work associated with the ballmarker he has designed and markets. They decided to work together that week.
Tucker made headlines in July 2021 when he fired DeChambeau on the eve of the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He’s not the first caddie to fire a player but it’s not often a caddie gives up a bag that had made him a rich man with a player seemingly just reaching the prime of his career. Tucker had filled in on occasion for Tour pros Adam Svensson and Chesson Hadley, but this time would be different.
“I just thought he was world class,’’ Tucker told a cloud of reporters on Sunday after claiming the caddie trophy, the flag at 18. “I told him you’re world class in three areas. Clean up the driver and you can beat these guys. He’s elite chipping the ball and striking it.”
Kitayama tied for first in driving accuracy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but on Sunday the driver let him down on the ninth hole when he pulled his ball out of bounds and he made a triple bogey to drop out of the lead. On the long walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee at Bay Hill, Tucker provided a master class in how to keep a player from spiraling out of control.
“I still felt comfortable. I didn’t feel out of place. It was just one bad swing,” Kitayama said. “He kind of backed me up. He said that, he goes, ‘I know, you look fine.’ And that helped.”
Just three tournaments into the job, Tucker helped guide the 30-year-old Kitayama to the winner’s circle. Asked earlier in the week how much having Tucker on the bag has helped him, Kitayama said, “he’s got a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience. I think that’s definitely helped a lot. It’s been great just kind of seeing his side and how he works and just kind of getting used to it, really.”
With his right knee in a brace and a noticeable limp, Tucker had helped lift another player to victory at Arnie’s Place and would only say of DeChambeau that they are still friends and he’d bought him a Christmas present he still needed to deliver. He was reluctant to speak to the press all week and preferred to shine the light on his current boss.
“Look at him, look at his smile,” Tucker told reporters afterwards. “He got the monkey off his back, proving he can play with the big boys.”