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Life-changing moment arrives for Keith Mitchell at The Honda Classic

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Wins first PGA TOUR event at The Honda Classic after draining 15-foot birdie putt on final hole

    Written by Mike McAllister @PGATOUR_MikeMc

    Keith Mitchell grabs first win at Honda

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Keith Mitchell doesn’t have a lot of winning experience to draw upon. His only victory since turning pro in 2014 was a mini-tour event in North Carolina. Although he was an All-American at the University of Georgia, he never won a collegiate event, struggling early on with the discipline needed to maximize his potential.

    Oh, he’s come close to winning a couple of times. He lost a three-man playoff in Brazil on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica in 2015. He had a few looks on the Tour, including a tie for third in the News Sentinel Open in his native Tennessee. And in his rookie season on TOUR a year ago, he was solo second – albeit by four shots – in the Dominican Republic.

    Mainly, he’s suffered heartbreak. In August of 2017, he had a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole in the final regular-season event of the Tour at Pumpkin Ridge outside Portland, Oregon. Making the putt would secure his PGA TOUR card.

    He missed it.

    “I think about it all the time,” Mitchell said about that putt. “I don’t have a number, but it’s in the thousands.”

    He was definitely thinking about it Sunday morning while driving to PGA National to play the final round of The Honda Classic. Tied for second to start the day, Mitchell had a life-changing opportunity in his grasp. He just needed to achieve something he’s rarely done the last few years.

    Some golfers might flinch at those negative feelings, of failing to get it done when the pressure and stakes were at their highest. Mitchell, though, used it as motivation, as determination. He’s felt what it’s like to come up short. Time for a different sensation.

    “I didn’t want to have those feelings today,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to overcome those. I wanted to see what it was like on the other side.”

    The other side was now 15-1/2 feet away on the 18th hole at PGA National late Sunday afternoon. A similar distance to Pumpkin Ridge, and no surprise that those memories were threatening to distract him from the task at hand. Hole the birdie putt, and he becomes a PGA TOUR winner. Miss it and he falls into a playoff with two of the TOUR’s biggest names, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler, each a local resident with a huge following.

    But this was no Pumpkin Ridge. Keith Mitchell’s time had finally come – a one-stroke win, a two-year TOUR exemption and all the other accoutrements that come with being a TOUR winner.

    Sorry, Brooks. Sorry, Rickie.

    “If I make par here, I got a playoff with two of the best players in the world and potentially Hall-of-Famers of all time,” Mitchell said. “That’s a big thought for a guy that’s on his second year of TOUR that’s never won. So I was able to execute and that’s something I haven’t been able to do in the past.”

    Two days earlier, Mitchell had finished 36 holes as the co-leader with Sungjae Im. A headline in the local newspaper called them “no-names” and someone else in the media made the suggestion that neither one would be in contention on Sunday when the tournament was decided.

    A friend of Mitchell’s sent him a text with the headline and the slight, and added a simple “show those guys what’s up” message. On the first tee in Saturday’s third round, Mitchell read the text. He did the same on Sunday prior to teeing off.

    He wasn’t angry. He simply wanted that chip on his shoulder. He plays better when nothing is expected of him.

    “I don’t expect to have any great stuff to be written about me because I’ve only been out here for a year,” Mitchell said. “So I’m not saying that in a negative light. I just used that as a little kind of emotion that everyone gets their start somewhere, everyone gets their first win somewhere, and I wanted this to be mine.”

    It didn’t start that well, with Mitchell opening with consecutive bogeys. But that just moved the spotlight even further away. He bounced back with two birdies before making the turn, and then bounced back again after having to lay up with his second shot at the par-4 11th and suffering another bogey.

    An 11-foot birdie putt at the 12th was the start of three birdies in the next four holes. Once he reached 8 under after a brilliant tee shot to 4 feet at the par-3 15th, he was in a five-way tie for the lead.

    Koepka was about to finish at 8 under, but Fowler was in the group immediately ahead of Mitchell. He had to hear the roars at both the 17th and 18th holes when Fowler rolled in birdie putts to also reach 8 under.

    That might’ve been the breaking point for some, especially a non-winner on a hard course. And then Mitchell pulled his tee shot at the par-5 18th into the fairway bunker. His ball was too close to the lip, preventing him for reaching the green in two.

    Another potential negative for the big hitter, but a solid bunker shot set him up 129 yards away with his third shot.

    “I knew I had a chance to win the tournament and I wasn’t going to let my ball being in the bunker deter me,” Mitchell said. “I made birdie the old-fashioned way, I guess they call it – which is not the Keith Mitchell way at all.”

    Mitchell then rolled in the winning putt. Fowler, waiting in front of the scoring area to see if there would a playoff, decided to hang around to welcome Mitchell to the winner’s club. He doesn’t know Mitchell that well, but Fowler knows how hard a course PGA National plays.

    “I knew what Keith was going through on the last, having been there,” said Fowler, who won The Honda Classic two years ago. “It’s not easy winning out here, especially your first. So seeing him make that putt, it’s cool.

    “I know the feeling. All you can do is sit back, smile, congratulate him.”

    Congratulations, of course, generally are reserved for winners. Keith Mitchell might not have been on the receiving end the last few years, but there were plenty of people waiting to shake his hand Sunday.