By Brian Wacker
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — For every Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler in golf there are dozens of Keith Mitchells, which explains why after the first two rounds at PGA National this week a local newspaper headline read “Two relative unknowns share lead at Honda Classic.”
A friend had texted Mitchell the headline and he read it a few minutes before teeing off on Saturday and again on Sunday. It proved useful motivation for the 27-year-old, whose lone victory as a professional until this week came at a mini-tour event in 2016.
“Everyone gets their first win somewhere,” Mitchell said. “I wanted this to be mine.”
Eighteen months ago, the former All-American from the University of Georgia had a chance for one, in a sense, when he faced a 15-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole of the Web.com Tour’s Portland Open. Making it would secure his card for the PGA Tour.
But Mitchell missed, and, worse yet, he had thought that he needed to make eagle on the hole, which might explain why his chip on the par-5 18th at Pumpkin Ridge’s Witch Hollow Course had scooted so far by the hole in the first place.
He made it to the PGA Tour a year later and finished in the top 125 of the FedEx Cup standings to keep his card but never forgot the missed putt at Pumpkin Ridge, or the other opportunities, like the one in the Dominican Republic last year when he finished second, that had slipped by.
“I actually thought about [the putt] this morning on the car ride over here because the feeling of missing out on an opportunity or the feeling of, I don’t want to say losing, but the feeling of putting yourself in the position to win or to succeed and then not coming through or not taking the moment as yours,” he said. “It’s something I’d struggled with in the past because you want it so bad. If you think that way, it’s never going to be a good outcome.”
It didn’t help any that he came into the Honda ranked 218th on tour in putting. Neither did opening with a pair of bogeys. After beginning the day just a stroke off the lead, Mitchell suddenly found himself playing catch up.
The leaderboard got awfully crowded, too, with Vijay Singh and Lucas Glover, both major champions with oodles of big game experience, among a handful of notable players nipping at the lead.
But after playing his first 11 holes in one over, Mitchell kept his cool and rattled off three birdies in his next four holes. Among them was one on the 160-yard par-3 15th over water, where he flagged his tee shot to a few feet and made the putt to break from the pack of players at seven under.
Koepka and Fowler pulled even, each making birdie on the par-5 finishing hole, leaving Mitchell to his own devices and the memory of another 15-footer, this time for the win.
“It was awesome,” Mitchell said. “I wish I could come up with a better word than that. But 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.”
With it comes a job on the PGA Tour for the next two years. Also a trip to the Masters. It will be his first major.