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AP photo by Matt York / Keith Mitchell tees off on the second hole of the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort during the first round of the Tournament of Champions on Jan. 2 in Kapalua, Hawaii. Mitchell, a Chattanooga native who played at Baylor School and the University of Georgia, was in the field due to his March 2019 victory at the Honda Classic, the first PGA Tour win of his career.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — They know who Keith Mitchell is now at PGA National. That's progress.

It was much different a year ago at the Honda Classic. On a leaderboard where Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka were closest to the Chattanooga native, and where former major champions Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Lucas Glover and Vijay Singh were hovering not far from the top, the relatively unknown player emerged as the winner.

It was Mitchell's first PGA Tour victory, a breakthrough moment for the former Baylor School and University of Georgia golfer who turned 28 on Jan. 7, and he's back at PGA National this week — now with people shouting his name as he walks by — with hopes of repeating as champion at the tournament that starts Thursday.

"The crazy part is, you know, a couple of years ago I didn't have a PGA Tour card and now I'm playing in the Masters against the best players in the world," Mitchell said. "I mean, yes, it's what your dream, what your goal is, but it means you just have to work that much harder and do that much more."

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AP photo by Matt York / Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell, a former Baylor School and University of Georgia golfer, tees off to start his second round at the PGA Tour's Tournament of Champions on Jan. 3 in Kapalua, Hawaii.

He has kept a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.

As he walked up the 18th fairway in the final round at the 2019 Honda Classic, at that moment tied for the lead with Koepka at 8 under, the NBC broadcast referred to him as Kevin Mitchell. The Palm Beach Post, the newspaper based closest to PGA National, ran "No-Name Champion" as its banner headline the next day. Mitchell had the good sense to understand no disrespect was intended.

Besides, he pointed out, the $1,224,000 winner's check — which he clinched with a birdie at the par-5 finishing hole, a putt that left him one shot clear of Fowler and Koepka — was made out to the right name.

"The motivation is simply the excitement, adrenaline, the hard work and effort that you've put in your entire life," Mitchell said. "I started playing golf as a hobby. I started playing it because my best friend at the time, his dad was the head pro at the local golf course and that's how I started playing golf. Just simply out of enjoyment and love for the game.

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AP photo by Nam Y. Huh / Keith Mitchell, right, and Phil Mickelson talk during the first round of the PGA Tour's BMW Championship on Aug. 15, 2019, at Medinah Country Club in Illinois.

"I just kept playing and enjoying it. I played in college, and then I turned pro because I thought I might have a chance to be good enough."

Koepka, No. 3 in the World Golf Ranking and the 2019 PGA Championship winner at Bethpage Black, is back in the field this week. So are two of the three other reigning major champions — U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland and British Open champion Shane Lowry — with the exception Masters winner Tiger Woods, who is again sitting out the event played near his Florida home.

The field has 16 players who have combined to win 24 major championships, with Koepka's four leading the list.

Also in the Honda Classic is Viktor Hovland, who can relate to what Mitchell was feeling a year ago. The 22-year-old finished first Sunday at the Puerto Rico Open — played opposite the World Golf Championship that was happening in Mexico City — to become the first Norwegian winner of a PGA Tour event.

"Obviously, you try to win every week," Hovland said. "But to do it, it's incredible. It's a special feeling."

Harris English, a two-time PGA Tour winner who also played at Baylor and Georgia, joins Mitchell in the field along with Luke List, the former Baylor and Vanderbilt golfer who flirted with his first PGA Tour win at the 2018 Honda Classic before losing a playoff to Justin Thomas.

 

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