The most exciting day for me watching golf on television this year took place on Sunday, March 3rd. It was the final round of The Honda Classic. Now that’s not an overly exciting tournament usually, although it typically draws a strong field during the Florida Swing and is played on one of the tougher golf courses on Tour, PGA National.
The reason it was so exciting was personal. A young second-year player on the PGA Tour was in contention and battling it out down the stretch with two of the game’s superstars, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler.
While most of the golf fans watching that day were looking forward to a Koepka-Fowler duel or possible playoff, I was all in rooting for the other player in the mix by the name of Keith Mitchell.
Mitchell is a native of Chattanooga and practically grew up at The Honors Course, where I spent five years working as an assistant professional. I got to witness him working on his game all through high school and then onto his college days at the University of Georgia. His caddie that he eventually took with him out to the Web.com Tour and then onto the PGA Tour is Pete Persolja, a buddy of mine and once upon a time one of several Club caddies at The Honors Course.
So, when Mitchell, tied for the lead with Koepka and Fowler, was playing the 18th hole, it was about as nervous as I’d been in a long time. A win would mean so much to him and Pete, with the two-year exemption, the money, the invitation to The Masters, and much more.
Mitchell had to lay up at the reachable par-5 18th hole, but he hit his wedge shot to 15 feet and gave himself a look at a winning birdie. He and Persolja looked it over, and when the putt went in dead-center, I vividly remember letting out a yell that my neighbors probably heard. My kids rushed in to make sure I was OK and to find out what the heck was going on. I told them a kid I’d known since he was in middle school just had his life changed forever.
The excitement in watching a young man realize a dream is unbelievable, especially when they are such a good person and easy to root for. Golf is a game where you fail more than you succeed, so the ability to overcome disappointments is usually what separates players. Mitchell played in the final group earlier in the year in Hawaii, and the moment got the best of him. A bad round sent him tumbling down the leaderboard. But he learned from that finish and used that experience to fuel him to his breakthrough victory at The Honda.
And now, he will forever be known as a PGA Tour winner. And my children still think their dad is crazy for screaming at a golf tournament on TV.
• With fall just around the corner, several Tri-Cities golfers are preparing for the college golf season to get underway as players and contributors at some of the top programs in the country.
Bristol’s Jet Tickle and Chase Roswall play for the University of Tennessee, Abingdon’s Andrew Spiegler and Connor Creasy play at South Carolina and Georgia, respectively, Jonesborough’s Jack Rhea is a leading player for ETSU, and Kingsport’s William Nottingham is a senior for the Clemson Tigers. On the women’s side, Addie Baggarly of Jonesborough plays at the University of Florida.
• Congratulations to former ETSU golfer Chloe Garner, who recently won the Women’s World Long Drive Championship. Garner’s winning drive in the finals traveled 347 yards. She had finished runner-up in two of the previous three years before finally breaking through for the title this year.
• Tennessee High junior Jack Tickle has earned a spot on the Tennessee Junior Cup team representing the East. The competition held at the Grove in middle Tennessee, and supported by Tennessee native and PGA Tour player Scott Stallings, features the top junior players from across the state of Tennessee. Tickle is committed to ETSU.