Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell has 54-hole lead on PGA Tour

AP photo by Chris O'Meara / Keith Mitchell tees off on the sixth hole of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook during the third round of the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship on Saturday in Palm Harbor, Fla.
AP photo by Chris O'Meara / Keith Mitchell tees off on the sixth hole of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook during the third round of the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship on Saturday in Palm Harbor, Fla.

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell capped a magnificent run through the "Snake Pit" on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook on Saturday with a shot he never saw go in.

His 7-iron play from the 18th fairway one-hopped into the hole for an eagle, a third round of 5-under-par 66 and a two-shot lead in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.

Mitchell was among a dozen players on the fringe of contention at a tournament so tight that it began with all 77 players who made the cut separated by a mere six shots.

That changed when he went 3-2-2 through the closing stretch of the course, the first player to do that in the tournament's history. The 32-year-old former Baylor School and University of Georgia standout holed a birdie putt just inside 15 feet on the 16th hole, hit a 6-iron shot to inside three feet for a birdie on the par-3 17th, then holed out on the 18th hole with a 7-iron from about 151 yards up a steep hill.

That put Mitchell at 10-under 203 through 54 holes, two shots clear of fellow American player Peter Malnati (68), Ireland's Seamus Power (68) and Canada's Mackenzie Hughes (69).

Mitchell's lone PGA Tour victory came in March 2019 at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where he won by a stroke over Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler at a tournament known then as the Honda Classic.

Mitchell knew his last shot Saturday was good, but something flew into his eye as he followed the flight, causing him to look away and wipe away the speck. Then he heard a loud cheer, looked up and realized the ball had gone in for a most unlikely eagle.

"When I looked up, something kind of flew in my eye, so I kind of looked away and never saw it come down and land," he said. "But I knew ... when I hit it, I was pleased with the contact."

The 18th green is elevated, and the pin was up front behind a deep bunker, so he wouldn't have been able to see it go in the hole, anyway. He could hear the crowd, and there was pleasant surprise on his face he couldn't hide.

There were a few other unpleasant surprises for players who briefly had a share of the lead.

One of them was 50-year-old Stewart Cink, who began the third round in a five-way tie for the lead. He had two early birdies and was leading through seven holes when he three-putted from 30 feet on the par-3 eighth. It only got worse from there. Cink shot 41 on the back nine for a 76, taking him from the lead to nine shots behind.

Justin Thomas birdied his first hole to get into a tie for the lead. That turned out to be his only birdie of what was an atrocious day on the greens. Thomas wound up with a 79 and was near the bottom. He took 38 putts and lost just more than seven shots to the field in the putting metric.

Mitchell, who needs a win to get into the Masters, has reason to feel the finish line is a lot longer away than just 18 holes.

It was super packed at the start, and even with a two-shot lead, Saturday was a reminder how quickly it can change at Innisbrook and with so many players in the mix.

"No matter how well you played, it was going to be tough to get much better than 4, 5 under, I thought," Power said. "It's tough to get away from the pack, so it's going to be some guys in with a chance."

Hughes regained the lead with a 40-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, only for Mitchell in the group ahead of him making two from the fairway, and then the Canadian losing his drive to the right and into the trees. That led to bogey, and just like that he was two behind.

Malnati birdied the 18th to stay in the hunt.

Chandler Phillips, the PGA Tour rookie who was part of the five-way tie, had a three-putt par on the 11th hole when it looked like he was starting to find some rhythm. He played the rest of the way in 2 over but was still in the mix, three shots behind.

So was Cameron Young, the New Yorker still looking for his first win despite have chances in the majors each of the past three years. He hit a rough patch early in his round that was erased when he holed out with a gap wedge for an eagle on the par-4 seventh hole.

Young had four birdies over the next seven holes and was right back in the game.

"It's a golf course that's difficult, and you know that with the scoring so bunched, it just takes two good swings and you can move up a lot," Young said. "It's definitely about as bunched as I've ever seen one, but I think provides a lot of opportunities as well."

Upcoming Events