Kurt Kitayama prepares to putt on the eighth hole during the first round of the Honda Classic golf tournament on Feb. 24 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

By TIM REYNOLDS, Associated Press

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 in the Honda Classic.

Kitayama — ranked No. 289 in the world — was nearly flawless at PGA National on Thursday, shooting a 6-under 64 to take a one-shot lead over Daniel Berger, Chris Kirk and Rory Sabbatini. 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 player who has missed cuts 64% of the time — 16 out of 25 — in tour events.

Berger also was bogey-free, and missed an 8-foot birdie try on the par-5 18th to settle for 65.

Peter Uihlein and Danny Willett were among the group at 67. Brooks Koepka, a Palm Beach County native basically playing a home game this week, was in a group at 68. And Joaquin Niemann, the Genesis winner last week at Riviera in Los Angeles, 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.

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 and Berger.

Sabbatini, the 2011 Honda winner, had a bogey-free round of 65 with 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.

Berger — whose back has been iffy in recent weeks — was 5 under through 11, then finished with seven consecutive pars.

“It’s nice to get off to a good start,” said Berger, who grew up playing junior golf at PGA National.

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.”

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