To the thousands who flocked to The Country Club last summer, it might have been a chance to watch the U.S. Open. But to Rumiko Kitayama, it was a chance to be together with her sons -- Kurt, left, who competed, and Daniel, who flew in from Bandon Dunes. Golf has blessed her with these reunions, she said.
Mar 15, 2023

Kurt and Daniel Kitayama: When passion for golf creates family unity

To embark upon a travelogue as a way of capturing the flavor of golf through the sagas of Kurt and Daniel Kitayama, one would have to determine a starting point.

Orlando, Fla., where Kurt just won $3.6m for his first PGA Tour triumph?

Oman or the Indian Ocean country of Mauritius where he helped ignite his career with DP World Tour victories in 2019?

Perhaps any of a few dozen locales in Europe and Asia where Daniel caddied for his younger brother, not always smoothly. “He asked me once about a hole and I told him, ‘Dude I’ve been on the course the same amount of time as you, so don’t ask me.’ ” No, Kurt did not like that answer.

Or the world’s coolest golf resort along Oregon’s southern coast, Bandon Dunes, where Daniel has looped for more than seven years and where Kurt has turned for support.

But perhaps it’s best to start in Chico, Calif., in northern Sacramento Valley where Rumiko Kitayama only recently came to grips with her only two children being committed to careers in golf.

“I used to think that golf professional was not a real job,” laughed Rumiko, who was born and raised in Japan and settled in California when she married Cliff Kitayama, who grew up in Redwood City, Calif., but is of Japanese descent.

“And when Daniel traveled to New Zealand to caddie, I asked him, ‘Why not finish college?’ ”

The calming force in that story was Cliff’s 90-year-old mother. “She told us, ‘It’s OK. It’s not a bad idea,’ ” said Rumiko. “So Daniel went and it was good for him.”

Proud as she is of her sons, Rumiko marvels at how “they are kind of opposites,” Daniel being rather gregarious, and Kurt, five years younger, the competitive one who didn’t agree with the notion of just “tagging along.” No, sir. If 8-year-old Daniel was going to go to the golf course to start playing the game, 3-year-old Kurt was right there with him.

Butte Creek Country Club in Chico was daycare to them. “Head pro Mike Mattingly let us do whatever we wanted, really,” said Daniel. “We were very, very fortunate.”

If Chico was the center of their universe for those childhood years, it wouldn’t remain that way as they got older. Daniel left first, off to the University of Hawaii-Hilo to play golf (2006-07), then to Bandon Dunes for a summer, which is where he got the offer to do a caddie exchange program on the other side of the world.

“At Hawaii-Hilo, I decided (competitive) golf was not for me,” said Daniel. But exposed to Bandon Dunes and Kidnappers, he was smitten with this slice of the golf world. After returning home to finish college at Chico State, he had his career path.

By then, younger brother had progressed nicely as a golfer but neither Daniel nor his parents “thought Kurt would be this good.” The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is where Kurt Kitayama landed; unheralded for two years, he produced substantially in his junior and senior seasons, winning three times and deciding to turn pro.

“I was worried,” concedes Rumiko.

Daniel wasn’t sure how it would unfold, but he knew one thing about his younger brother. “There’s definitely no quit in him; he grinds. He’s always believed in himself. He’s always chased it.”

The chase required a global pursuit because his debut on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2017 ended with just $41,009. Onward he went to the Asian Tour in 2018, a season that culminated with Kurt making it through all three stages of the DP World Tour Q School.

For weeks at a time during these years, Daniel took his vacation to caddie for his younger brother. There’s no price tag you can put on the travel, the sights, and the cultures they soaked in, but Daniel concedes he wasn’t always up to the demands put on a pro caddie.

Especially when the player is your brother.

“I think Kurt fired Daniel, I don’t know how many times,” said Rumiko, who was relieved when her oldest son left the bag and returned to his Bandon Dunes world.

“Daniel is so fun. He always makes friends easily,” said his mother. “So being a caddie is good for him.”

“There is a spirit with the caddies at Bandon,” said Daniel. “I’ve made so many great friends here. We all love the game and it’s stress-free for the most part. I was caddying for Kurt in Hong Kong and I saw a man wearing a Bandon Dunes hat. I didn’t expect that; then I realized just what sort of mecca Bandon Dunes is.”

From his little corner of golf paradise, Daniel has monitored Kurt’s progress with great pride. Those 2019 wins in Oman and Mauritius opened eyes, raised his world-ranking, and should you need to digest an impressive entry, try this on for size:

In recent years, Kurt Kitayama has finished second in tournaments on four continents (Thailand and Turkey in Asia; Kenya in Africa; Scotland in Europe; and South Carolina and Mexico in North America).

Six years after graduating from UNLV, Kurt Kitayama can put his finance degree to use – he earned $7.5 million over his first 34 tournaments, thanks to a win, three seconds, and a third.

Not that he hasn’t leaned on his older brother for assistance, because Kurt asked Daniel to put him in touch with veteran Tim Tucker, who left his Bandon Dunes gig to guide Bryson DeChambeau to a U.S. Open title and seven other PGA Tour wins.

Kurt Kitayama and Tim Tucker had shared space on the same golf course before – back in 2013 when Tucker shot 146 then won a four-way playoff in the Pacific Northwest Men’s Amateur at Bandon Dunes. Kurt shot 147 and was T-5. But this partnership started with a T-23 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, then a missed cut at the Genesis Invitational.

“He’s fine,” Tucker told Daniel. “Your brother can play.”

The next week, in just his 50th career tournament on the PGA Tour, Kurt Kitayama struck gold at a $20m tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Daniel Kitayama and his Bandon Dunes brethren watched in amazement. And in Chico, Rumiko and Cliff were in awe. “When he won, I was speechless,” she said. “We are so proud. It is unbelievable.”

But it is not the millions of dollars her youngest son has earned, nor the fame and glory, that warms Rumiko Kitayama’s heart. No, she is a mother who is grateful that golf has provided such joy for both her sons, and it is golf that keeps the family as one.

Last summer, the four of them were at The Country Club to watch Kurt play in the U.S. Open and in a few weeks they will be in Augusta, Ga., for the Masters.

“We do not get together that often,” said Rumiko. “So this will be a good opportunity for us.”

Aye, golf. It rarely disappoints.