Every professional golfer dreams of the day when the dream of winning becomes a reality. But it is not every tournament, where the inaugural champion wins in thrilling fashion on the 72nd hole.
Keith Mitchell would experience this at the Honda Classic. With the golfers coming down the stretch on Sunday, Mitchell would emerge victorious from the conglomeration of accomplished players. Three-time major champion Brooks Koepka shot a final round 66, birding two of the last three holes in the strenuous Bear Trap. Rickie Fowler made a Sunday charge into the tie for the lead, with birdies at three of the last four holes to shoot 67.
With Koepka and Fowler finished their rounds atop the leaderboard with Mitchell, he would sink a clutch birdie putt on the 72nd hole, securing the Honda Classic by one stroke. The arduous journey of becoming a winner on the PGA Tour for the 27-year-old.
“I think my past experiences gave me the belief today,” said Mitchell after his win. “I’ve been close before and let my emotions take control. Today, I used what I learned from those experiences to allow me to finally win.”
Keith Mitchell Ascension to PGA Tour Began as Georgia Bulldog
Before Mitchell arrived in the winner’s circle, he was a young golfer trying to achieve success in a PGA Tour saturated with talented players. Born and raised in St. Simons, Georgia, Mitchell would attend the University of Georgia Bulldogs golf program. The same team that produced two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, among countless other successful golfers.
“Once I turned pro and you’re out here playing for yourself and nobody else and you’ve got to pay off your credit card bills and it costs a lot of money to do it, it makes you realize, you really got to want to do this, you really got to want to play,” recalls Mitchell. “Luckily at Georgia that was kind of our mentality that we had qualify every week, and it just made you a better player.
While Georgia did not attain championship glory during Mitchell’s tenure, he developed the physical and mental golf skills under Bulldogs coach Chris Haack’s leadership. In 2015, Mitchell competed on the PGA Latinoamerica Tour, where he would finish runner up at the Brazil Open. The next two years Mitchell would gain more experience playing on the Web.com Tour. While he did not achieve any victories, the young golfer demonstrated steady results, earning him a PGA Tour card for 2018. It was the PGA National Golf Course that hosts the Honda Classic, where Mitchell would play through Q-school to secure his dream of playing professional golf.
“This golf course you’ve got to stay so patient. I played Q-school here in the final stage and Q-school on this golf course is probably the most stress there could ever be in your career because either it’s all or nothing,” says Mitchell. “I mean, just having that experience in the back of my mind out here is good.”
Mitchell Experiences Adversity of PGA Tour
Life on the PGA Tour wasn’t easy for Keith Mitchell starting out. Instant success was not guaranteed. The skills and lessons learned from his days at Georgia and the Web.com Tour helped drive improvement, but not any victories for Mitchell.
Mitchell’s strength is his driving distance and accuracy. Last season on the PGA Tour, the American was ranked 7th for strokes gained: off the tee (.706). But it was maintaining the consistency in his game that Mitchell found a challenge.
There would be stretches of tournaments where he would miss cuts. Mitchell would showcase glimpses of talent in the first two rounds, but not hold it together on the weekend. In 2018 at the Corales Punta Cana Resort and Club Championship, Mitchell would earn his first runner-up, four strokes behind the eventual champion Brice Garnett. As he reflects back on those experiences, it taught him valuable lessons of conquering adversity, staying calm under pressure and not getting emotional when things don’t go according to plan in a round.
“I’ve been close, and I’ve never been able to pull through,” says Mitchell. “This week we were — my caddie and I were really focused on not letting the emotions get to us about the winning because you want to win so bad if you let those emotions get to you while you’re still on the golf course and you’re still performing it’s going to take you over. So we didn’t do that today, and now I can let it sink in.”
Mitchell Puts Together Full Package in First Win
The emotions were certainly in check this week for Mitchell. Nothing phased him. In tournaments he has played in the past, the smallest distractions, from a caddie standing behind him to a fan yelling, have sidetracked his success.
“If you let that one thing mess up that one shot and that shot dictates your round, then your tournament is over,” says Mitchell. “So this week, I did such a better job of focusing on what I was supposed to focus on, and as easy as that sounds, it’s so hard out there when you’re playing against the best players in the world.”
For the tournament, Mitchell was first at the Honda Classic in strokes gained: tee to green (11.9), seventh in strokes gained: approach to green (6.14), sixth in strokes gained: around the green (3.52) and tied for second in scrambling (77.8 percent). No better example of Mitchell’s ability to dig deep and showcase clutch shots under pressure than his performance in the Bear Trap during the final round.
Out of all the golf courses played during the PGA Tour calendar, the toughest stretch is holes 15-18 at PGA National, known as the Bear Trap. It decides tournaments. It solidifies legacies and makes golfers second guess for years. For Mitchell, he would go two under the last four holes. On the 72nd hole, Mitchell found the fairway bunker, forcing him to lay up before his approach to the green. With Koepka and Fowler both tied at 8-under, Mitchell knew a birdie would secure the victory.
And with his 15-foot putt draining in the cup, Mitchell would be etched into the annals of golf history. Winning at PGA National is not for the faint of heart. And this week, Mitchell proved he could contain his nerves and come up with great shots under pressure.
“Just having a chance to play — coming down the stretch against Rickie Fowler and Brooks, those guys are the best in the world, and they’ve been out here proving themselves. I’m just pleased that I could prove myself against guys like that in such a great field and a great tournament, the Honda Classic.”