Down the stretch at the Honda Classic, there were two players who appeared to have he pedigree and talent to rise above the crowded top of the leaderboard to take home the tournament trophy.
However, both Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler, who are ranked inside the top-10 in the world and have victories to their credit this wraparound season, were outgunned down the stretch by relative unknown Keith Mitchell.
Kopeka and Fowler both finished strong with Koepka birdieing two of his last three and Fowler picking up three shots over his last four holes to post 8-under par, but both had the same sense of foreboding when they entered the scoring area and saw what Mitchell was doing on the back nine.
“I had the same feeling I had at Valero when Kevin Chappell won (in 2017 with a 72nd-hole birdie),” Koepka said, according to PGATour.com. “It just wasn’t going to be enough.
“I didn’t hit the ball particularly well all week. I putted very well – that’s what I’m pleased about, coming into Augusta and The Players, trending nicely. That was one thing that I felt like was missing.
“I don’t need my ‘A’ game to be in contention. I feel like as long as I do one thing really well – whether it’s iron play, putting this week – I’m going to be in contention. I’m going to give myself a chance at a win come Sunday with nine holes to go, and that’s all you want to do.”
“I thought (9-under par) was good,” Fowler said. “I thought 8 might have a chance. Obviously, with a jam-packed leaderboard, you knew it was going to come down to the last hole with five or six guys or so up there.
“I’m proud of the way I kind of fought through things. I didn’t drive it quite that well today but hit some quality golf shots when I needed to, and nice to finish with three birdies in the last four.”
Mitchell was nails down the stretch, however. After a bogey on the par-4 11th, the University of Georgia product birdied four of his last seven holes, including the daunting par-3 15th, the first hole of The Bear Trap. Knowing he could win the tournament with a birdie on the last, the thought of going head-to-head with Kopeka and Fowler was something Mitchell wanted to avoid.
“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.”
Finding a fairway bunker off the tee, Mitchell made the conservative play laying up to 130 yards, then hitting his approach to 15 feet.
“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.”
With all the pressure on him, Mitchell didn’t flinch. He made the 15-footer right in the heart and then gave a great fist pump. He moved from 162nd in the world to 68th and he will enjoy the spoils of becoming a PGA Tour winner, which includes a $1.2 million check, job security for the next two years and a tee time at Augusta National next month.