On the eve of the 84th Masters and the first with a November backdrop, absence was already making the heart grow fonder for Keith Mitchell.
The former Baylor School and University of Georgia golfer made his Masters debut last year and shot a 1-under-par 287 to finish in a tie for 43rd. Mitchell earned his 2019 Masters invitation with a victory several weeks earlier at the Honda Classic, but the 28-year-old is not among the 92 in this year's field who were greeted with a weather delay Thursday morning but can expect gorgeous weather for the rest of this history-making weekend at Augusta National.
"This just makes me want to go back even more," Mitchell said. "When you're a kid and when you're in college and when you're starting to play as a professional, it's a dream to play at Augusta, and when you get there, you kind of realize your dream. When you miss making it the next year, it makes you more motivated, because you know what it's like and you know what you're missing.
"In a roundabout way, I think it's a good thing that I get a little more motivation this coming year to try to get there in April."
Mitchell's performance at last year's Masters ignited a surge of stellar showings by Baylor School alumni at major tournaments, a run highlighted by Luke List's sixth-place finish at the 2019 PGA Championship and Harris English's fourth-place finish earlier this year at the U.S. Open. English, Mitchell and List each made the cut at this year's PGA Championship, with English ending up in a tie for 19th.
English placed 12th in the FedEx Cup standings for the 2019-20 season, so he already has earned an invite to the 2021 Masters.
"It's funny, because Harris and Luke and I have games that are very similar," Mitchell said. "We hit it high and far, and usually in majors, that's a very good asset to have."
Another Baylor golf alum, Stephan Jaeger, played on the PGA Tour for two seasons from 2017 to 2019 and is a five-time winner on the second-tier Korn Ferry Tour. Jaeger qualified for this year's U.S. Open and tied for 34th.
The dominant story entering this year's Masters wasn't about Tiger Woods trying to repeat as champion and seeking a sixth green jacket but rather Bryson DeChambeau and his booming drives. DeChambeau rolled in this year's U.S. Open for his first career major championship and is the betting favorite this weekend, having opened Thursday with a 2-under 70.
DeChambeau's ability to pack on the pounds and the strength has been the talk of the sport since the PGA Tour resumed from a coronavirus-related hiatus, but the big-hitting Mitchell doesn't believe that same game plan would work for him.
"First off, Bryson led or was in the top three of strokes gained putting and strokes gained around the green at the U.S. Open," Mitchell said, "so as much as we talk about his driving that week, he won because he chipped and putted better than just about everybody in the field. It's an interesting topic for sure, because I had the fastest club-head speed on tour my rookie year in 2018, now I'm probably 10th, and I haven't changed anything.
"Every year, these younger guys are going to hit it a little farther and farther, and it's the way our game is going. All of the older guys on tour were the longest of their generation during their four- or five-year window when they were young. I'm not really trying to do anything to hit the ball farther. I've tried the long shaft, and what you gain in ball speed, you lose drastically in accuracy."
Mitchell's debut at the Masters would have been even more memorable had it not been for a disappointing back nine on Friday — "I saw myself climbing up the leaderboard and got a little ahead of myself. My expectations changed, and my level of nerves changed," he said — that resulted in a 74. He closed the tournament with a 69 that earned him the red number at his dream locale.
Though his first and foremost goal is to play at the Masters, he is so enamored by the event that his excitement doesn't wane even if he's relegated to a role of television spectator like millions across the country.
"I'm interested to see how the golf course is going to play and how the golf course is going to look," he said. "We're never going to have another November Masters again, and we're lucky to even get to have a Masters. We're going to have another one in six months, and I think it will be fun just to kind of embrace the difference."