In 2010, as a Georgia freshman, Keith Mitchell got his first up-close introduction to Augusta National. You’d have thought he was meeting the queen of England. Or Herschel Walker.
“I promise I was more nervous on that tee just playing a fun round than I was in any tournament up to that point,” Mitchell remembered this week. But, as he recalls, he did hit his best drive of the day there.
Other fond memories from one of four playing trips to the cradle of the Masters – being a collegiate golfer just down the road does have its privileges – range from the lunch to the legendary.
“I remember the cheeseburger was incredible,” he said. Remember, he’s a teenager at this point.
“I remember walking in the champion’s locker room and you kind of get this eerie feeling when you’re in there, just looking at the names, looking at the lockers,” he said.
Older now, all of 27, callused by his apprenticeship on lesser tours and steeped in the struggles to find himself as a professional golfer, Mitchell in April has the chance to update those memories. A chance to see this course as less a shrine and more workplace.
On March 3, Mitchell had his big breakthrough, making a 16-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the Honda Classic to hold off such luminaries as Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler for his first PGA Tour victory. The invitation to the Masters was in the mail almost as soon as that putt dropped.
You could say it was kind of a big putt.
Or, you could say, as Mitchell did, “It was a putt that changed my life.”
Some putts have that power, apparently. Eighteen months earlier, he had missed a 15-footer to secure a Web.com Tour victory that in turn would have locked up a place on the big-boy tour. (He would rebound to get his card for the 2017-18 season). But this make trumps that miss. All old golfing disappointments stepped aside one afternoon in south Florida and let a gentle swipe with the smallest club play through.
It was a putt and a moment that Mitchell managed to describe in quite a stirring way.
“That's so cool to think about all the doors that have been opened for me after winning,” he said a week afterward. “But the best thing about winning was the feeling from the time that putt went in the hole and the time I got it out of the hole. Like that 15, 20 seconds is the feeling that every single player on the PGA Tour is out here for. I mean you can say you're out here for all these different things and the fame and the fortune and everything. But I learned after winning that the coolest part about it is that raw emotion from the time the ball goes in the hole until the time you get it out.”
Honestly, he’ll say that the biggest bonus in victory was the two-year PGA Tour exemption that came with it. There’s no beating the guaranteed chance to earn a very nice living. So, he grinds away at his profession (if it’s proper to ever refer to golf as a grind). He finished tied for sixth the next week at the Palmer Invitational.
And he has stayed hot at this week’s Players Championship here, making a big move Friday with a second-round 65 that left him just four strokes off the lead of Tommy Fleetwood (12 under through 36 holes).
“I thought on Saturday at the Arnold Palmer I ran out (of gas), but apparently I found a reserve tank somewhere. I played great that Sunday and I got to go home for a night. And I felt good out there today,” he said following Friday’s round. “I'm definitely a little tired. But I get to sleep in (Saturday) and have a decently late tee time. Two more days and we'll see what we can do.”
Don’t think earning the chance to play in his first Masters isn’t a good thing, too. You’d be surprised the kind of reaction such a opportunity gets. “I got a text from Condoleezza Rice (former Secretary of State and an Augusta National member). Peyton Manning, too. That was pretty cool,” he said.
When the winning putt dropped at the Honda Classic, Mitchell became the 10th Chris Haack-coached Georgia player to win on the PGA Tour. And it certainly raised his status among his neighbors on St. Simons/Sea Island, where he moved to learn from the likes of Davis Love III, Zach Johnson and former Georgia teammate Harris English.
“I like to surround myself with people better than me. And Sea Island does that. So many guys who have so many more trophies that know so much more than I do,” Mitchell said. “If I can surround myself with those guys and try to compete with them and learn from them, it will make me a better player in every way.”
And becoming a tournament-victory made man perhaps will strip away the veil of anonymity that followed Mitchell into the pros. During the Honda broadcast, as he was fashioning his breakthrough, he was referred to as Kevin rather than Keith. Mitchell took to Twitter to joke, “You can call me Kevin all you want. Just make the check out to Keith.”
To this day, his free-spirit caddie, “Crunchy Pete” Persolja has more Twitter followers than does he. As to whether the tournament winner foresees a day when he might pass his caddie for the affections of the Twitter audience, Mitchell said, “I hope not because (Persolja) is the most genuine, nicest, best guy in the world. He’s that well liked out here. It’s well deserved.”
A victory redefined Mitchell’s place in golf food chain. But obviously it didn’t change his view of himself. No need to take himself too seriously just yet.
Even when a south Florida newspaper heralded his victory by referring to him in a headline as a “No-Name Champion,” he pretty much laughed it off, leaving the outrage to various readers.
An Atlanta newspaper guy promised him this week that should things go surprisingly well in Augusta in a few weeks the term “No-name Masters champion” would appear nowhere in print or online.
Mitchell just smiled and said, “You might want to. You might get some good reaction.”
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