PALM BEACH GARDENS – The raucous crowd at PGA National wanted to see hometown favorites Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler in a playoff, but Keith Mitchell had other thoughts.
Mitchell drilled a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole Sunday for his fourth birdie in the last seven holes and an unlikely victory in the Honda Classic.
Mitchell was ranked 162nd in the world, had missed his last two cuts and hadn’t won in five years as a professional, but he outdueled a crowded, star-studded leaderboard. His final birdie capped a 3-under 67 and he finished at 9-under 271 on a wind-blown Champion Course.
“It was a perfect putt,” Mitchell said. “I played against those guys in college (Koepka and Fowler) and to beat them is an incredible feeling.”
Few people at PGA National had heard of Mitchell, a 27-year-old Tennessee native, until Sunday. But he delivered clutch golf to emerge from a late six-way tie for the lead.
Mitchell showed nerves early, opening with two bogeys. But he birdied the next hole, and added five more birdies. This was his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in his last 14 starts.
“My mind was starting to wander at the end,” Mitchell said. “I knew the key was to get through the Bear Trap.”
Had he missed the putt at No. 18, Mitchell would have been in a playoff with Koepka and Fowler. Asked how well he knew Mitchell, Koepka said, “I knew he went to Georgia … he played great and he deserved to win.”
Said Fowler: “I knew what Keith was going through on the last, having been there, and it’s not easy, winning out here, especially your first. Seeing him make that putt, it’s cool. All you can do is sit back, smile, congratulate him.”
Koepka, who has won three of the last seven majors, finally played well in his hometown event, closing with a 66 for his first top-25 finish at the Honda Classic.
“I made too many bad swings this week, and that’s what cost me,” said Koepka, who made a double bogey in each of the first three rounds. “This is a course where the best players usually come to the top.”
Fowler birdied the last two holes, including a 45-footer on the 17th, to position himself for his second win in the last three years here. Consecutive bogeys early in the round cost him.
“I felt like those two shots were kind of given away that didn’t really need to be,” Fowler said. “I’m proud of the way I kind of fought through things.”
Vijay Singh, who at 56 was looking to become the oldest winner on the PGA Tour, was part of the six-way tie for the lead when he birdied the 14th. But Singh bogeyed the 17th hole when his tee shot bounced into the water and he finished alone in sixth.
For a long time, it appeared Ryan Palmer – who teed off 3½ hours before the leader – might steal this tournament when he shot a 7-under 63. But a missed 5-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole proved costly.
“Saved the last putt to hit my worst putt for some reason today,” said Palmer, who lost a four-way playoff here in 2014.
Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover birdied his last two holes to catch Palmer at 7-under. But those scores became moot when Koepka two-putted the 18th for birdie to reach 8-under. Palmer and Glover tied for fourth place.
Defending champion Justin Thomas never recovered from injuring his right arm after hitting a tree on his approach at the 10th hole in the first round. Thomas shot 71 Sunday – he was 5-over after 5 holes – and tied for 30th place.
“I feel better – better than I did after the first five holes,” Thomas said. Jack Nicklaus was the only player to defend his title in this event (1977-78).
Thomas spent most of his post-round interview talking about a tweet from the USGA saying “we need to talk” after Thomas has repeatedly criticized the governing body’s newly-implemented rules. The USGA tweet said “you’ve canceled every meeting we’ve planned with you.”
“It was a little upsetting just because it was inaccurate,” Thomas said. “I haven’t canceled anything … all I want is the best for the game of golf and the best for the sport.
“It was a little shocking.”
Almost as shocking as watching Keith Mitchell win his first professional title.