News & Opinion

Mitchell upstages local favorites at Honda

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The stage was set for the biggest historically significant accomplishment of the 2019 PGA Tour season on Sunday. Vijay Singh, in the final pairing of the Honda Classic, was ideally positioned to become the oldest winner of a PGA Tour event and erase one of the longest-standing records in golf.

Coming off a third-round 65 on the Champion Course at PGA National Resort, the 56-year-old Singh started the final round of the $6.8 million championship just one stroke behind leader Wyndham Clark in the final group. Clark, 31 years younger than Singh, was (and still is) winless on the PGA Tour.

Keith Mitchell
Keith Mitchell basks in his first PGA Tour victory.

There were other challengers, though, and a most unlikely one got the victory. Keith Mitchell, despite opening the final round with two bogeys, broke through on golf’s premier circuit by sinking a 15½-foot birdie putt on the final green for a one-stroke victory (scores).

Mitchell’s fourth birdie in his final seven holes capped a 3-under 67 and a 9-under 271 total. The putt ended hopes of local residents Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka, who had finished at 8-under 272. Mitchell earned $1,224,000 and claimed spots in seven of golf’s biggest events, including the Players Championship in two weeks and the Masters next month.

“My mind started wandering a bit at the end,’’ Mitchell said, “and then I hit a great putt.’’

That said it all for this staging of the first event on the PGA Tour’s four-tournament Florida Swing.

As for Singh, he was in a tie for the lead twice on the back nine and still was in contention until his tee shot at No. 17 – a par 3 that concludes the fearsome three-hole “Bear Trap” – came up short, with the ball partly submerged in a water hazard. That led to a bogey, and Singh finished sixth after his final-round 70.

“It was awesome to see Vijay play well this week and get himself in contention,’’ Fowler said. “I’d love to be healthy and swinging and being able to compete with guys that are half my age at that point. It’s impressive stuff.’’

Mitchell was impressed, too.

“It’s so amazing what he has done at that age,’’ Mitchell said. “He’s 30 years older than me, and he’s hitting more balls on the range than I am. That guy is a true testament to fitness, to health. If I’m anywhere near a golf course when I’m 56, I’m going to be excited.’’

The last of Singh’s 34 PGA Tour victories was 11 years ago, but he won his first major title on the Champions Tour last year, at the Constellation Senior Players.

The strong showing against the young stars also came after Singh and the PGA Tour recently reached a settlement on a lawsuit that was filed in 2013 (“In the news,” Nov. 21). The dispute started when the Tour suspended Singh for use of deer antler spray, which contained a banned substance. The settlement restricts both sides from talking about the dispute.

Mitchell’s clutch putt on the last green denied two hometown heroes. Fowler lives in nearby Jupiter, and Koepka, the reigning two-time U.S. Open champion and defending PGA champion, grew up in West Palm Beach and also lives in Jupiter. They were waiting for a playoff with Mitchell – a player whom neither knew very well. Still, both were there to congratulate Mitchell before he reached the scorer’s table.

“I know he went to Georgia,’’ Koepka said. “He was there when I was at Florida State, so I knew him a little bit in amateur and junior golf. He’s a good player, strikes it really well, a powerful golf swing. Good to see him win.’’

Said Fowler: “I haven’t played with him or seen him play much, but you can’t fake it around this golf course. You have to go out there and earn it.’’

Mitchell did.

“It was awesome, just to have a chance coming down the stretch against Rickie and Brooks,’’ Mitchell said. “I’m just glad I could prove myself against guys like that.’’

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is a golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: lenziehm@gmail.com; Twitter: @ZiehmLen