At one point Sunday on the back nine at the 2019 Honda Classic, the following golfers were tied for the lead at 7 under par with Rickie Fowler boiling just behind them.
- Ryan Palmer
- Vijay Singh
- Lucas Glover
- K.H. Lee
- Brooks Koepka
- Keith Mitchell
It was a mosaic of a leaderboard, one full of stars, superstars, former stars, ball-striking youngsters and putter-wielding veterans. It was, to be completely honest, chaotic. What happens when you get a bunched-up board like this is that someone usually goes on a tear to win the event outright. That's exactly what happened, but it wasn't the guy we thought it might be.
At first, it seemed as if Koepka would be the one. He finished with two birdies in his last three holes to shoot 4-under 66 on the day and get in the house at 8 under, one ahead of Palmer and Glover. But then, Fowler tied him with three birdies in his final four, including this absurd 45-footer on the par-3 17th. Those two set the mark and dared anybody behind them to make it through the normally tough ending at PGA National unscathed and with a chance.
Somebody did. In his his 40th PGA Tour start, Mitchell -- whose favorite quote, according to the PGA Tour, is, "You will never be able to fly if you are scared of heights" -- stepped in and stole the show. He birdied Nos. 12, 13, 15 and 18, the last one a game-winner from 15 feet that never had a chance of doing anything but finding the bottom of the cup. He finished at 9-under 271, one clear of Fowler and Koepka for the first win of his career.
"I was trying to focus on what was going on," Mitchell told NBC's Steve Sands. "My mind started wandering a little bit toward the end. You're going to have bad thoughts, that's the reality of it. I was just trying to focus on what the putt was doing and my read and my speed. I hit a great putt."
He did a great putt -- especially for somebody who came in No. 218 on the PGA Tour in putting -- but before that he hit 162 terrific shots from tee to green and finished No. 1 in the field in that category. That's how you flex on Koepka (as much as one flexes on Koepka) and Fowler at the very end of a tournament in their own backyard.
"These guys are awesome," Mitchell told Sands after bagging his first victory and scoring a Masters invite. "I know Rickie's young and Brooks is young, but they've been out here so much longer than me. I've been watching them since college and junior golf. They're both great ambassadors of the game. Having my name next to theirs is an honor in the first place."
Mitchell played the back nine of his life on Sunday to post the fourth-best round of the day and beat out two of the best in the business late at PGA National. So the end to a wild afternoon in Florida got maybe the wildest final act we could have imagined (unless you thought Singh was going to emerge victorious). The No. 162 player in the world coming in off three missed cuts in his last four starts staring down two top-10 players and running right through them with a 15-foot 6-inch putt he'll remember forever. It was kind of the perfect ending to a bonkers Sunday at the Honda. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2019 Honda Classic.
Rickie Fowler (T2): Fowler did his best to shake the "dude just can't close" narrative on Sunday with a back-nine 32, which was nearly four better than the field average. He made putts of 22 feet, 16 feet, 45 feet and 7 feet over the final eight holes -- all for birdie. All more pressure packed than the last. If he'd hit it just slightly better on the front nine on Sunday, he probably would have either been in a playoff or won outright. Also, the triple bogey on Thursday didn't help. Grade: A
Brooks Koepka (T2): This sounds dumb because he's won three major championships, but it was nice to see Koepka contend at a "regular season" PGA Tour event. The iron he hit into 18 made me weak. He walked after it, flipped his club up and had me convinced it was going to disappear in the hole. It didn't of course, but he easily two-putted for the birdie and 8-under number. The juxtaposition of him and Fowler showing nearly zero emotion with Mitchell showing all of the emotion made for a fascinating and fun Sunday watch. Grade: A
Ryan Palmer (T4): I mention Palmer because he set the clubhouse lead at 7 under several hours before the leaders and eventual winner came through. His 7-under 63 was nearly eight strokes better than the field average and three better than the second-best round of the day on Sunday. While it's true that he wasn't playing with the pressure that those behind him were, a 63 on Sunday at PGA National (with a 29 on the front) is laugh-out-loud good. Palmer, who ranks No. 143 on the PGA Tour in driving somehow led this field in that category. Golf, man. It's the best. Grade: A
Justin Thomas (T30): It wasn't the greatest week for last year's champion Thomas, who took himself out of contention with a 74 on Friday and was fighting against dead arm after hitting a tree early in the week. Still, there were fireworks this week just as there were this time last year, and they once again came with something that happened outside the ropes rather than between them. The USGA's PR account on Twitter went after Thomas after he criticized their rules. The parties apparently connected, but the response was an eye-opener. Grade: B- (raised to a B+ for the Twitter drama)
Totally agree... I more so say things in hopes that the USGA starts communicating with the current players to better the game and the sport. The rules are rules, no getting past that. Just hoping going forward, communication is had and ALL GOLFERS benefit from any changes 👌🏽 https://t.co/86TE7L8AnR— Justin Thomas (@JustinThomas34) March 2, 2019
Justin, we need to talk. You’ve cancelled every meeting we’ve planned with you, but we are reaching out again. We were at the first 5 events, and tournaments last year, and your tour has had a seat at the table for 7 years. We’d love nothing more than to give you a seat. Call us.— USGA PR (@USGA_PR) March 2, 2019
Justin, thanks for connecting with us offline. We look forward to meeting with you and talking through these issues. It's clear we both want to do what's right by the game.— USGA PR (@USGA_PR) March 3, 2019