Golf

Former UGA golfer proud to represent university in his first-ever Masters

Keith Mitchell hits a drive on the second hole during the first round for the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Augusta, Ga.
Keith Mitchell hits a drive on the second hole during the first round for the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Augusta, Ga. AP

Rocking back and forth, Keith Mitchell peers over his left shoulder. Then, back down to the white ball on the tee. Shoulder. Ball. Shoulder. Ball.

Swing.

Perfect.

Donning a Georgia-red yardage book cover in his back right pocket, Mitchell launched a drive more than 30 yards past his playing partners down the tunnel of the first tee at Augusta National.

The little rock before swinging — sometimes a sign of nerves — is not unusual for Mitchell. But that doesn’t mean that first tee shot was nerve-free.

“There’s always nerves out there when you’re playing in a tournament, especially this one,” Mitchell said. “It means you care.”

Walking down the walkway from the tee with a big “G” on his bag, Mitchell heard the shouts of “Go Dawgs” as he strutted toward his drive.

Plenty of G’s could be spotted on the hats and shirts of those following Mitchell en route to his even-par 72 Thursday.

“I wish I could say ‘Go Dawgs’ back to every single one, but you get so many out there that you just kind of acknowledge them,” Mitchell said. “It’s great to have a good support system out here. Georgia has had a great golf program, and you can really see it this week.”

Four former Georgia players are playing this week: two-time champion Bubba Watson, last year’s champion Patrick Reed, Kevin Kisner and Mitchell.

A 2014 graduate, Mitchell said the program prepares players well for the professional game. Mitchell said Chris Haack, the coach at Georgia for more than 22 years, utilizes an untraditional theory for coaching that helps players in the long run.

“(H)e does not ever pick a team usually. It’s always you go out and you qualify and the low five scores play in the tournament, and that’s how it is in professional golf,” Mitchell said. “You don’t have somebody sitting there and saying, ‘well, you had a bad couple rounds in qualifying, we’re going to take you anyway.’”

Mitchell mentioned an instance when Joey Garber was ranked the No. 1 player in the country, but he didn’t qualify for a tournament. Haack didn’t take him on the trip.

“(H)e’s not focused on him and his team at the time, he’s focused on each individual player and their success that they are going to have down the road,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s first big success was his victory at this year’s Honda Classic, besting Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler by one stroke. That victory qualified him for The Masters, a tournament close to his college home.

J.T. Poston, Mitchell’s roommate and also a member of the PGA Tour, said Mitchell has Georgia gear spread throughout their home.

“He’s a Nike guy, so he’s got all kinds of Nike gear,” Poston said. “He’s got a bunch of different shoes — Air Maxes — and I’d say about half of them are some sort of red design.”

Thursday, Mitchell sported a white shirt and white hat but still represented his alma mater with his yardage book cover and bag logo. Mitchell wore a serious demeanor most of the round, still calm and collected after the round with media.

But Poston said the former Bulldog is usually quite the entertainer.

“Everybody that has played with Keith just knows he’s one of a kind. He’s a lot of fun to play with, whether it’s a tournament round or whether it’s for fun,” Poston said. “Usually there’s probably some music going or some jokes flying.”

Poston has lived with Mitchell in St. Simons for less than a year and a half. The two met for the first time at the Jones Cup in St. Simons as college players and their relationship grew as Web.com Tour players, oftentimes traveling together on the mini-tour road.

Now both are on the PGA, and Mitchell is playing in the most sought-after tournament in the sport. Poston said Mitchell looks like he’s just trying to soak it in.

“He’s got the game to play well in big events like (The Masters). Just being around him, that’s going to happen when he’s nice and relaxed,” Poston said. “The best way for him to do that this week is from soaking it in and having that care-free type mentality. You’re playing in The Masters. If you play great, great. If you don’t play good, you’re still playing in The Masters.”

The Masters — a tournament Mitchell himself said any golfer dreams about. After making par on the first hole, the Honda Classic champ drained par putts on holes two and three from roughly 10 and 20 feet.

After a bogey on five, Mitchell racked off nine straight pars before a double on 14. He bounced back swiftly with an eagle on 15 and birdie on 16 before pars on the final two holes.

“(T)his place is just magical for anyone and everyone, and it’s been true, all the years the tournament’s been here,” Mitchell said. “So just being a part of it is truly just a blessing.”

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