Georgia’s two sponsor’s exemptions for the 2013 Stadion Classic at UGA have more in common than their last names.
Senior T.J. and junior Keith Mitchell were both a hair away from landing a spot in the tournament last year.
T.J. had played in every round last season, but because of it, his scoring average was less than one stroke higher than junior Brian Carter, who had played one round over the 75 percent minimum to qualify for the exemption. Keith had the lowest scoring average between the trio, but was one round short of meeting the minimum, giving the second spot behind sophomore Nicholas Reach to Carter.
“Nick and Brian deserved every bit as much as anybody else on the team that played last year,” Keith said. “It was a little bittersweet knowing that I played the golf I needed to play, but didn’t quite earn my spot. So this year it’s a great feeling to be able to compete in it because watching your friends out there play really gives you the drive to want to get out there even more.”
The two Mitchells have a combined nine top-10 finishes this season. T.J. leads the Bulldogs in scoring average with 72.07, followed by Keith’s 72.29 — both in 28 total rounds of play.
Earning one of the exemptions is a season-long focus for Georgia’s golfers.
It keeps them locked in when things might not be going their way at any given tournament because it could come down to a few strokes or making the cut for one more round, evidenced by last year’s close finish.
“It’s always in the back of our minds no matter what tournament it is,” Keith said. “Even if you’re having a bad tournament, you can’t just pack your bags and accept a bad round because you always know there’s that chance that you’ll be competing in the Stadion at the end of the year. It’s a year-long battle, and there’s usually no flack when it comes to your tournament scores when it comes down the stretch.”
Apart from the appeal of competing in a Web.com Tour event, the Stadion provides Georgia’s two deserving athletes a measuring stick to compare their skills to that of the professional game.
“It gives them a great barometer in which they can judge their game against those guys,” Georgia golf coach Chris Haack said. “They’ll take away from it what they need to work on, what they do well — it’s a big deal for these guys, and they come into the year knowing that because it’s up to them with stroke average, they’ve got as good a chance as anybody to make it out there and be one of those two picks.”
Even though it will be the first time either Mitchell has competed in a Web.com event, the Bulldogs’ team captain isn’t putting any emphasis on it, and is removing any weight that playing on this stage can bring.
“What I’m looking at it as is just an opportunity for me just to gain experience, and anything else that will come from it,” T.J. said. “It should be looked at as another golf tournament. You’re going to try your best and you shouldn’t add any more pressure to yourself.”
Keith, on the other hand, is looking to learn off of the golf course. This weekend will give him a glimpse behind-the-scenes of how professional golf tournaments are run even though he’s playing on familiar grounds.
“A lot of it is how the tournaments are run, how the lifestyle is,” he said. “It’s a little different being able to stay in my own bed and play on my own golf course. It’s something I want to do the rest of my life. Adapt to it and start getting comfortable with the experiences, and hopefully get comfortable with my golf game playing against these guys. That’s the most important part — being comfortable on the course so you can have an opportunity to play your best.”
He may have an opportunity to take the spotlight between the two Mitchells with T.J. nursing a rib strain he suffered in March at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters in Las Vegas.
“The main thing for it is just rest, and for rest to be adequate I’d have to take four weeks off, and obviously I don’t have four weeks to take off,” T.J. said.
The injury has been hot and cold for the senior ever since, but taking time off is not an option at this point in his collegiate career.
“Even when you’re feeling well — it didn’t bug me in Augusta (at the Insperity Augusta State Invitational) — but you still have it in the back of your mind that one swing might tweak you again and you’re back to square one,” T.J. said. “You’re not trying to adjust your swing to where it doesn’t hurt; you still want to swing the same. I’m just trying to get through the Web.com, regionals and nationals and play as well as I can. Hopefully this thing won’t bother me too much.”
How much the injury bug will bite T.J. on his ball-striking this weekend remains up in the air.
Even though it gives Keith an edge for being the healthier or the two Mitchells, he’s not buying that it’ll be a factor in the overall outcome just yet.
“I’d like to say that, but I’m just lucky to have this opportunity to play,” Keith said. “If something magical happens, let it be.”