Former Bulldog has a bang-up PGA Tour debut

Credit: Steve Hummer

Credit: Steve Hummer

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – On the first hole of his first PGA Tour event ever, a par 5, former Georgia Bulldog Keith Mitchell hit a 220-yard second shot to seven feet and canned the eagle putt.

Sunday, on the last hole of his first PGA Tour event ever, Mitchell made an uphill, undulating, double-breaking 48-foot birdie putt disappear.

“I almost walked into the bunker when I made it because I didn’t know where I was,” Mitchell said.

Easy game, huh?

“I wish it was this easy every time,” he said with a wide smile.

The 70 holes in between during this week’s Valspar Championship weren’t too bad either. As debuts go, Mitchell’s 6 under, good for a tie for 11th place, was a smash. He entered this tournament through the back door, playing his way in through a Monday qualifier that extended into a Tuesday morning five-way playoff. He left with the highest finish by a Monday qualifier this young season on the PGA Tour.

“It’s going to help me a lot the rest of the year knowing if I can compete out here, I can definitely compete on the Web ( Tour) and just try to earn playing out here next year,” Mitchell said. “That’s the goal this year. And after my good play this week it will really help me with that comfort level and confidence.”

From the way this week started, Mitchell, 25, a 2014 Georgia grad now making his home in Sea Island, could not have foreseen much good coming of it.

Having been diverted from a Kansas appearance to a funeral in Baltimore, Mitchell had no time to swing home and properly pack for Florida. He arrived at the qualifier Monday from Baltimore with the clothes on his back and not much else. A friend who also was playing in the qualifier delivered his clubs. Without even his spikes, Mitchell had to borrow a pair of golf shoes from another friend who was playing here Monday.

But the providential nature of this week began revealing itself when he rolled in a birdie putt Tuesday morning to rise above the four other hopefuls in the play-in playoff.

There might be a lesson here about how not having much time to really think and prepare could be good for your golf game.

Since leaving UGA in 2014, Mitchell has played in 23 events on the lower tier tour. His best finish was a T-5 last month in Panama. The time has been well spent, he said, banking experience that served him when this opportunity ambushed him.

“Playing on the Web I’ve struggled sometimes on weekends. Been close to the lead and haven’t closed out. Learning from those experiences on that Tour really helped me this week. I knew I was playing well. I just had to finish the 18 holes solid and not get in the way,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell finished with a 3-under 68 Sunday, to the delight of a car-full of his high school buddies from Chattanooga who drove through the night Friday to watch him play this weekend. Mitchell is out of the Baylor School in Tennessee, the same school of former bulldog golfers Harris English and Michael Morrison.

Like a conspicuous number of other professional players, Mitchell advertises his background through a Bulldogs headcover. He hopes to join that family soon on the PGA Tour.

“Man, I’ve got some big shoes to fill with those Georgia guys,” he said. “They’ve been so awesome to me, helping me prepare and do the things I needed to do to get here. They’ve got a lot of wins and I’ve got zero. I’ve got some work to do to catch those guys.”

To be crassly capitalistic about it, the events of the week certainly will help bankroll Mitchell’s ambitions. He earned $145,000 at the Valspar. His biggest payday was $22,000 for last month’s Panama performance.

The money really matters to a good number of these guys out here.

“That was one thing I tried not to think about out there. I knew that was something if I started thinking about that who knows what could have crept into my head?” Mitchell said.

“That’s going to be huge. That’s going to take the pressure of the rest of the year off, allow me to just be able to play.”