Palm Beach Gardens, Florida: There was still a group behind them, so the party moved to the practice green at PGA National.
Halfway between the scoring room and the 18th green, where Keith Mitchell had just sunk a birdie putt to win the Honda Classic, he was immediately greeted by friend and fellow St. Simons Island, Ga. resident, J.T. Poston.
Poston’s caddie Aaron Flener was there too, both wearing street clothes after a T-36 finish. Flener is a mountain of a man and lifted Mitchell off the ground in a bear hug.
Shortly after the round was over, Mitchell was asked when it began to sink in that this could be his tournament.
“It hasn’t yet,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s why I played so well. …. Those last four holes are so hard.”
And yet, with no room for error, Mitchell navigated the closing stretch with a birdie at the par-3 15th and another 15-foot birdie make to close out the one-shot victory.
Mitchell, 27, shot 9-under 271 for the week and closed with a 3-under 67 for his first career Tour win. The winning putt meant avoiding a playoff with Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler, both of whom finished one shot back at 8 under for the week.
Mitchell’s caddie, Peter Persolja, has been on the bag for four years – two on the Web.com Tour and two on the PGA Tour. He said Mitchell never wavered down the stretch, despite all the huge names next to him on the leaderboard.
“We just stuck to our game plan and never got frustrated,” Persolja said. “He kept a really positive attitude all week long. That was it. Just stick to our game plan, pick a number, hit it, hope you pick the right club and go rock and roll.”
Ice water in @K_m_Mitchell‘s veins. 🥶
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 3, 2019
Mitchell’s mind was still spinning thinking about everything that comes with the victory – a two-year exemption and spots in the upcoming Players Championship and Masters, for starters.
In the final group of the day, Vijay Singh fell short in his attempt to become the oldest-ever winner on the PGA Tour at age 56. Singh was one shot off the lead when his tee shot found the hazard at the par-3 17th hole.
He took a one-shot penalty and made bogey, finishing with an even-par 70 on the day and solo sixth overall at 6 under. It was a throwback afternoon for Singh, who drew chants of “Let’s go Vi-Jay” while still in contention down the stretch.
Koepka shot 4-under 66 in the final round and Fowler 67 to finish T-2.
“Happy for Keith,” Fowler said. “You can’t fake it around this place, so he went out and got the job done, and he earned it.”
Fowler was involved in one of several high-profile rules incidents throughout the week, including Justin Thomas’ back-and-forth with the USGA on Twitter, Alex Cejka’s DQ for improper greens-reading materials and Fowler openly mocking the new knee-high drop rule.
In the end, a clinching birdie putt for a first-time winner helped end things on a high note throughout a thrilling final round at PGA National.
Keith Mitchell doesn’t have a lot of winning experience to draw upon. His only victory since turning pro in 2014 was a mini-tour event in North Carolina. Although he was an All-American at the University of Georgia, he never won a collegiate event, struggling early on with the discipline needed to maximize his potential.
Oh, he’s come close to winning a couple of times. He lost a three-man playoff in Brazil on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica in 2015. He had a few looks on the Web.com Tour, including a tie for third in the News Sentinel Open in his native Tennessee. And in his rookie season on TOUR a year ago, he was solo second – albeit by four shots – in the Dominican Republic.
Mainly, he’s suffered heartbreak. In August of 2017, he had a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole in the final regular-season event of the Web.com Tour at Pumpkin Ridge outside Portland, Oregon. Making the putt would secure his PGA TOUR card.