The first PGA Tour victory for former Georgia Bulldog Keith Mitchell could not have come in much more dramatic fashion.
Mitchell, in just his second season on the PGA Tour, rolled in a 15-foot birdie on the 72nd hole of the Honda Classic to break a 3-way tie with Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler, capping a clutch back nine performance by the St. Simons Island resident.
Thanks to four birdies on his last seven holes, Mitchell shot a final round 67 for an 8-under 272 total and a career-altering victory.
At one point in the final round, six players were tied for first place, and several of the contenders made strong stretch drives on the difficult Champions course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Ryan Palmer, playing well ahead of the leaders, shot a final round 63 to post a 7-under 273 total while the leaders were still on the front nine, and Lucas Glover birdied his final two holes to tie him in the clubhouse.
Koepka was the first player to finish at 8-under when he birdied two of the last three holes, and Fowler matched him with three birdies on his last four, getting up and down from the sand for birdie at the par-5 18th in the group in front of Mitchell.
Mitchell shared the 36-hole with rookie Sungjae Im at 134 after a second round 66, and was only one shot off the 54-hole lead of rookie Wyndham Clark following a third round 70.
Playing in the next to last pairing Sunday ahead of Clark and 56-year-old Vijay Singh, Mitchell did not get off to the kind of start he was hoping for. He drove into a fairway bunker on the opening hole and could not reach the green on the par 4 in two and made bogey. He followed with another bogey on the second hole, three-putting from 55 feet.
“I wouldn’t say the first two holes were nerves,” Mitchell said after the round. “I would say they were bad execution. I was so mad. I was anxious is the best way to put it.”
Mitchell settled down as he played the par-5 third hole, and the long-hitting ex-Bulldog made the somewhat rare decision to lay up, leaving him with a 35-yard chip shot.
“I laid up exactly where I wanted and hit my chip shot exactly where I wanted (to two feet) and made birdie, and I used that as momentum going forward.”
Mitchell saved pars after missing the green on holes 4 and 6 and got back to even par for the day with a birdie at the ninth after a big drive and a 90-yard approach to seven feet.
A bogey at the 11th after an errant tee shot could have ended Mitchell’s hopes for his first victory. But he quickly responded with back-to-back birdies at 12 and 13, following up a pair of tee shots in the fairway with putts of 11 and 17 feet. The latter got him into a tie with Palmer and Glover, and Mitchell took the lead when he hit his tee shot on the dangerous par-3 15th to four feet and converted the birdie putt.
Both Koepka and Fowler birdied the 18th to force Mitchell to birdie the hole for the win, but his 323-yard tee shot on the par 5 found a fairway bunker, forcing him to lay up. Facing s third shot from 129 yards, Mitchell left himself a 15-footer for birdie, and calmly drilled the putt into the cup to take home the winner’s check of $1,224,000 and a host of perks.
Mitchell did not let the disappointment of being unable to go for the green in two detract from his focus or impact the way he played the hole from there.
“I knew I had a chance to win the tournament, and I wasn’t going to let my ball being in the bunker deter that. I made birdie the old-fashioned way I guess they call it, which is not the Keith Mitchell way at all. But I did that today, and that just shows you how well I played this week.”
Playing in the group behind Fowler, Mitchell got a close-up look at Fowler’s birdies on the two watery par-3s (15 and 17) that are part of the infamous Bear Trap, including a 45-foot putt at the 17th. Faced with challenges from two of the game’s best players, Mitchell did not flinch, with his superb tee shot on the 15th leading to a clutch birdie and putting him in a position to win with a birdie at the 18th.
Mitchell said he contemplated the possibility of a three-way playoff “with two of the best players in the world. That’s a big thought for a guy that’s on his second year on tour that’s never won. I was able to execute, and that’s something I haven’t been able to do in the past.”
With his victory, Mitchell earned a two-year exemption on tour, plus invitations to the Masters, PGA Championship, Tournament of Champions and the WGC event that has moved to his home state. Mitchell, a native of Chattanooga, is in the WGC tournament that has moved from Akron to Memphis, and he is in position to earn a spot in the Match Play Championship, which will be played in Austin late this month.
Mitchell jumped from 102 to 17 in the FedExCup standings and from 162 to 68 in the World Golf Rankings. The top 64 qualify for the Match Play, and with several players expected to skip it, Mitchell is already sitting on the bubble for entrance into the tournament.
With the Players and possibly the Match Play on his schedule before April, Mitchell has plenty to keep his mind off his first ever appearance in the Masters, and does have to concern himself with one of the tasks first time qualifiers have to deal with – finding a place to stay in Augusta for the week.
One of Mitchell’s best friends lives in Augusta, and Mitchell was offered a house for the week if he ever won a tournament to qualify for the Masters.
With his victory, Mitchell became the ninth of 11 former UGA golfers currently on the PGA Tour with at least one tour victory. The only non-winners among the group are rookies Joey Garber and Sepp Straka, both teammates of Mitchell in Athens.
Unlike many of his Bulldog predecessors who are current PGA Tour members, Mitchell did not have a particularly successful career in Athens. He hardly played as a freshman on a team led by seniors Russell Henley, Harris English and Hudson Swafford, and did not win an individual title in his three seasons as a starter.
Mitchell’s best season came a sophomore, when he recorded top-10 finishes in the SEC and NCAA Championships. But he was not among the team’s top players as a junior or senior, with a third place finish in his first start as a sophomore the best of his career.
After graduating in 2014, Mitchell turned pro and competed on the LatinoAmerica Tour In 2015. He placed 19th on the money list with five top 10s, among them a tie for second in Brazil.
Mitchell qualified for the Web.com Tour in 2016 and played well enough to finish in the top 75 and retain his status for the following season. He enjoyed an even better season in 2017, and was battling to finish in the top 25 and earn a spot on the PGA Tour in the regular season finale in Portland. He shared the lead after 54 holes and had a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to tie for second and finish among the top 25.
But Mitchell could not convert the putt and wound up 26th on the final regular season money list. Needing to finish in the top 25 in the four Finals series of tournaments, he tied for sixth in two of the first three to lock up his spot on the 2017-18 PGA Tour. He could have had a third top-10 finish in Finals, but withdrew after 54 holes of the Web.com Tour Championship in Jacksonville because the conclusion of the weather-delayed event was pushed into the start of the week for the 2017-18 PGA Tour opener in California.
Prior to his rookie season on the PGA Tour, Mitchell had made one start on the tour, tying for 11th in Tampa in 2017 after making the field in a Monday qualifier. His rookie season, which began later that year, got off to a rocky start with three straight missed cuts, but he made the cut in his next six starts and made run at victory in the opposite field event in the Dominican Republic, placing second.
Mitchell tied for sixth the following week in Houston, and solidified his spot in the top 125 with a tie for third in the Byron Nelson Classic, shooting 63 in the final round. He finished his rookie season a solid 68th on the points list, and competed in the first three Playoffs events, tying for 20th in Boston and playing well for three days in Philadelphia.
As a rookie, Mitchell placed 10th on the tour in driving distance (312.6 yards) and was seventh in strokes gained off the tee. His length helped him finish 13th in birdies per round, but he finished near the bottom in putting stats.
Before his win in the Honda, Mitchell had three finishes between 14th and 22nd this season, but in his other six starts, missed four cuts and twice finished well back in the pack. After a tie for 16th in Hawaii, he struggled in his next four starts on the West Coast, but as soon as he returned to more familiar territory, came through with just his second win as a pro.
Mitchell won a mini-tour event in North Carolina in 2017, but that was his lone pro title until Sunday.
“Everybody dreams about having that putt on the 18th hole to win a tournament, and I had it today. Fortunately I was able to capitalize, and it feels awesome.”
Before he began his final round Sunday, Mitchell said he reflected on some of his past disappointments in similar situations.
“The feeling of putting yourself in the position to win or to succeed and then not coming through is something I’ve 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.
“I wanted to overcome those feelings and wanted to see what it was like on the other side. I had that chance on 18 and it was tough, but I was able to do it and I hit a great putt.”