PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — They know who Keith Mitchell is now at PGA National. That’s progress.
It was much different a year ago at the Honda Classic. On a leaderboard where Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler were closest to Mitchell, and where past major champions like Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk and Lucas Glover were hovering not far from the top, it was the relative unknown who emerged as the winner.
The Honda was Mitchell’s first career win, a breakthrough moment for the now-28-year-old from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and he’s back at PGA National this week — now, with people shouting his name as he walks by — with hopes of defending the title.
“The crazy part is, you know, a couple of years ago I didn't have a PGA Tour card and now I'm playing in the Masters against the best players in the world,” Mitchell said. “I mean, yes, it's what your dream, what your goal is, but it means you just have to work that much harder and do that much more.”
He has kept a sense of perspective, and a sense of humour.
As he walked up the 18th fairway in the final round a year ago, at that moment tied for the lead with Koepka at 8 under, the NBC broadcast referred to him as “Kevin” Mitchell. The Palm Beach Post, the newspaper based closest to PGA National, ran “No-Name Champion” as its banner headline the day after the Honda. Mitchell had the good sense to understand that the paper meant no disrespect.
Besides, he pointed out, the $1,224,000 winner’s check — which he clinched with a birdie at the par-5 finishing hole, a putt that left him one shot clear of Koepka and Fowler — was made out to the right name.
“The motivation is simply the excitement, adrenaline, the hard work and effort that you've put in your entire life,” Mitchell said. “I started playing golf as a hobby. I started playing it because my best friend at the time, his dad was the head pro at the local golf course and that's how I started playing golf. Just simply out of enjoyment and love for the game. I just kept playing and enjoying it. I played in college and then I turned pro because I thought I might have a chance to be good enough.”
Koepka, the world’s No. 3 player and reigning PGA Championship winner, is back in the field this week. So are two of the three other current major-title holders, U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland and British Open champion Shane Lowry. The only exception is Masters winner Tiger Woods, who is again sitting out his hometown event.
Also in the Honda this week: Viktor Hovland, who can relate to what Mitchell was feeling a year ago. Hovland is coming off a win this past weekend in Puerto Rico, the first PGA Tour win ever by a Norwegian player.
“Obviously, you try to win every week,” Hovland said. “But to do it, it’s incredible. It’s a special feeling.”
DIVOTS: The field has 16 players who have combined to win 24 major championships, with Koepka’s four leading the list. ... PGA National’s tee boxes were renovated last August, while 16 inches of rain pounded the golf course. The course took on 11 inches of rain in December, most of that in a two-day span on Dec. 27-28. ... Water is in play on 15 of the holes at PGA National. Rain is forecast Wednesday, followed by a strong cold front that is expected to keep high temperatures around 70 — unseasonably cool for South Florida — all weekend.