ATHENS -- Forget for just a moment that the UGA men's golf team has two of the top amateur players in the country on its team in Russell Henley and Harris English.
Here's another one of the reasons Bulldogs coach Chris Haack thinks Georgia can win a national title this week: Former Deerfield star T.J. Mitchell is playing the best golf of his life.
"When T.J.'s playing well, which he certainly has been lately, we feel like we're as good as anybody," Haack told The Herald last week just days before the Bulldogs were to tee off at the 2011 NCAA Championships, which begin today at Oklahoma State's Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla. "I think we have as good a chance as anybody to win this thing."
Mitchell, a redshirt sophomore and The Albany Herald's 2008 Player of the Year, along with four of his teammates -- seniors Hudson Swafford of Tallahassee, Fla., Henley of Macon, English of Thomasville, and sophomore Bryden Macpherson of Melbourne, Australia -- will make up one of the 29 teams in the field at nationals. UGA -- which won it all in 1999 and 2005 but missed qualifying last year to end a streak of 12 appearances in a row -- comes in as the 12th-ranked team in the country.
And Mitchell, who will be making his NCAA debut, comes in playing as good anybody.
"I'm just really excited, but not really nervous. We're all just ready to tee off," said Mitchell, who is coming off his best showing of the season -- a 4-under, ninth-place finish at NCAA qualifying in Erie, Colo., just 10 days ago that helped punch UGA's ticket to the nationals. "Something just clicked (at NCAA qualifying). I was patient and I believed in myself."
Haack said everyone on the UGA team and those qualifying "took notice" of Mitchell after he posted a scorching 61 -- the best round of his collegiate career by three shots -- in the pre-qualifier for Colorado, then actually led the tournament overall individually after the second round at 7-under.
Mitchell said he had Henley to thank for getting him focused.
"He just told me to stay in the present (when I was on the course) and forget about everything else," Mitchell said about Henley, who is the 35th-ranked collegiate golfer in the nation and is coming off a history-making win as an amateur at the Nationwide Tour event in early May in Athens.
"We were all at a little bit of a disadvantage playing way out in Colorado, with the altitude and everything, but we finished strong (in a tie for fourth as a team).
"I'm just so glad we made it this year. It was really disappointing when we didn't qualify last season because we had such a great team."
Mitchell had an up-and-down season before breaking out when his team needed him most. His highest finish before NCAA qualifying came two months ago at the Puerto Rico Classic when he took 13th out of 75 golfers.
Haack said it may have taken Mitchell some time to find his groove -- the former DWS star who is UGA's No. 4-seeded golfer hadn't finished higher than 33rd in the other four tournaments he played this season before Puerto Rico -- but it couldn't have come at a better time.
"He had a swing-change issue that set him back a little bit (early in the year), but he got that straightened out and played great in Puerto Rico, and he's peaking at the right time," Haack said. "The kid has just worked so hard all season, and he's gotten more and more confidence every time he goes out to play."
Should UGA manage to finish as one of the top eight teams this week, the Bulldogs will advance to the match-play round, which will ultimately decide this year's national champ. Luckily for Mitchell and UGA, they've got a bit of an edge coming into the tournament. The Bulldogs finished third overall on this same course in Stillwater during their first tournament of the season, the Ping/GolfWeek Preview.
"We feel very comfortable on that course -- and a good experience on a golf course (is a huge mental advantage) -- so you can't count us out," Mitchell said. "And I think we're a good match-play team -- but we have to make it there first.
"Getting this far is great, but none of us will be satisfied if we don't at least get to the match-play round. This is Russell's, Harris' and Hudson's last year at Georgia, and more than anything we want to send them out as winners."