Motivation

Monday Finish: Mitchell used underdog role as motivation – PGA TOUR

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On arguably the toughest non-major course on the PGA TOUR, Keith Mitchell birdies four of the last seven holes, including a clutch putt from 15 1/2 feet at the last, to break through for his first win at The Honda Classic.

Welcome to the Monday Finish, where Mitchell dominated from tee to green, held his nerve, and shot up 85 spots to 17th in the FedExCup.

FIVE OBSERVATIONS

1. Mitchell used ‘no-name’ quip as fuel.

Not many people had Mitchell winning The Honda Classic before the tournament began, and for good reason. His last top-10 finish before Sunday: a T7 at the John Deere Classic last July. Heck, people couldn’t even get his name right. Baseball fans who recall a certain former San Francisco Giants third baseman sometimes call him Kevin Mitchell.

Undaunted, the golfer used the confusion to his advantage.

“I feel like I play better when I try to come from behind or when people don’t expect you to win,” Mitchell said, “and a friend of mine sent me a newspaper article and it says ‘No-name is leading Honda after Friday.’ And I don’t expect to have any great stuff to be written about me because I’ve only been out here for a year, so I’m not saying that in a negative light.

“I just used that as a little kind of emotion,” he added, “that everyone gets their start somewhere, everyone gets their first win somewhere, and I wanted this to be mine, and I was able to do it.”

2. Clutch shots abounded.

First came Ryan Palmer, who went out some two hours ahead of the leaders but shot up the leaderboard with his closing 63, including a 29 on the front, to get to 7-under for the tournament. Then came Lucas Glover, who drained a must-make birdie on 18 for a 66 to tie Palmer at 7-under.

Mr. Clutch Brooks Koepka made yet another crucial birdie on 18 to get to 8-under. Rickie Fowler rolled in a ridiculous, nearly 45-foot birdie putt on 17 and got up and down from the back bunker to birdie 18, as well, joining Koepka at 8-under. Clutch. Clutch. And clutch.

Then came Mitchell’s heroics at the last, where he refused to be sidetracked by his wayward tee shot. He played the hole against type, which is to say he took three shots to make his way to the green before making the deciding, left-to-right birdie putt.

“Thankfully, I knew what it was doing before I even got there,” Mitchell said of his final stroke. “I mean, all the grain on the green goes left to right, the slope on the green goes left to right, and it was a little uphill. So, I didn’t really have that much questioning in terms of my read and my speed.”

3. Fowler had the low-key reaction of the week.

Rickie Fowler admitted he did not have his best day with the driver, but it was hard to be too critical after he birdied three of the last four holes, including that crazy, almost 45-foot birdie putt on 17, only to notch his 14th runner-up finish on TOUR.

“It’s hard to separate yourself here on such a tough golf course, especially in the conditions,” Fowler said after making a nerveless up-and-down birdie out of the back-left bunker on 18, only to watch Mitchell clip him by one. “You can’t really run away. It’s tough to do that. … I’m happy with the way I finished, and at least I gave myself a chance.”

Fowler had the longest made putt of the third round, from 56 ½ feet at the par-4 6th. In the fourth round, he connected from 44 feet, 10 inches at the par-3 17th hole, keeping himself in the tournament, then gave barely a wave–easily the low-key reaction of the week.

4. Water/wind combination took a toll.

On a course with as much water and wind as PGA National, disaster avoidance is key.

Mitchell did not make anything worse than a bogey, but Rickie Fowler triple-bogeyed the par-4 sixth hole Thursday (and still shot 67), while Brooks Koepka double-bogeyed the par-3 15th hole on Thursday, the par-3 fifth on Friday, and the par-4 second hole Saturday.

Fowler and Koepka putted well, but couldn’t completely overcome their blow-up holes.

“I know I don’t need my “A” game to be in contention,” said Koepka, who reported being fractionally off from tee to green. “I feel like as long as I do one thing really well, whether it’s iron play, putting like 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 felt like I hit it kind of OK,” he added. “Iron play was definitely not up to par, but I drove it OK, too. I hit some shots. I mean, it’s so difficult with this wind, too, to really find a rhythm, and especially if you’re not quite striking it as well.”    

5. Singh was a surprise and an inspiration.

Sam Snead remains the oldest to win on TOUR. He was 52 when he captured the 1965 Wyndham Championship. Vijay Singh, 56, had that record in his sights before he bogeyed the 17th hole and failed to birdie the par-5 18th. He finished solo sixth, his first top-10 since he was runner-up at the 2016 Quicken Loans National.

“It’s so amazing what that guy can do at his age,” said Mitchell. “I’m standing there holding the trophy and my back is already kind of hurting a little bit. That guy is 30 years older than me and he’s out there hitting more balls than I am.

“That guy is a true testament to fitness,” Mitchell continued, “to health, to just (being) a true competitor because there’s days that I wake up and kind of not feeling right, and I don’t really want to hit balls, et cetera, and he’s out there grinding and competing at — is it 56? At 56. If I’m anywhere near a golf course at 56, I’m going to be excited.”

FIVE INSIGHTS

1. Mitchell led the field for the week in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (+11.917), and ranked T2 in Scrambling (21 of 27). He joined Michael Thompson (2013), Y.E. Yang (2009), Mark Wilson (2007), Padraig Harrington (2005), Todd Hamilton (2004) and Matt Kuchar (2002) as players to earn their first TOUR win at The Honda Classic since 2000.

2. Just one of many reasons to be bullish on this year’s winner: Each of the last three winners of The Honda Classic before Mitchell went on to finish in the top seven of the FedExCup: Justin Thomas (2018/7th), Fowler (2017/7th), and Adam Scott (2016/4th).

3. Defending champion Thomas finished T30 in his attempt to become the only other player besides Jack Nicklaus (1977, ’78) to successfully defend his title at The Honda Classic. Brooks Koepka (66, T2) was trying to keep the trophy in Jupiter after fellow residents Fowler Thomas won it in ’17 and ’18, respectively.

4. Mitchell joined the following University of Georgia winners on TOUR: Bubba Watson (12), Chris Kirk (4), Chip Beck (4), Tim Simpson (4), Billy Kratzert (4), Russell Henley (3), Brian Harman (2), Harris English (2), Kevin Kisner (2), Hudson Swafford (1), Brendon Todd (1), Ryuji Imada (1).

5. Jim Furyk (T9) focused largely on his Ryder Cup captaincy last season, but he recorded a top-10 finish for the fifth time in 10 starts at The Honda Classic. The 17-time TOUR winner and 2010 FedExCup champion, 48, moved up 33 spots to 64th in the current FedExCup standings.

WYNDHAM REWARDS

The Wyndham Rewards Top 10 is in its first season and adds another layer of excitement to the FedExCup Regular Season. The top 10 players at the end of the FedExCup Regular Season will earn bonus payouts from the Wyndham Rewards Top 10.

There were no changes at the top after The Honda Classic, with the top four players holding their positions. In finishing T2 at PGA National, reigning PGA TOUR Player of the Year Brooks Koepka was the biggest mover among the Wyndham Rewards Top 10, going from 17th to 8th.

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