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Albany native Mitchell leads UGA, captures first career collegiate title

Former Herald Player of the Year T.J. Mitchell of Albany not only finished the ODU/Outerbanks Collegiate Invitational as low medalist, but UGA won as a team, thanks to Mitchell’s round that was the second-lowest in school history. (University of Georgia/Special to The Herald)

Former Herald Player of the Year T.J. Mitchell of Albany not only finished the ODU/Outerbanks Collegiate Invitational as low medalist, but UGA won as a team, thanks to Mitchell’s round that was the second-lowest in school history. (University of Georgia/Special to The Herald)

POWELLS POINT, N.C. — As Bulldogs junior and Albany native T.J. Mitchell sat on the tarmac Tuesday evening, waiting for the airplane to take off and bring the Georgia men’s golf team back to Athens following a monumental team and individual victory, he was asked what clicked this week that enabled him to play the best golf of his collegiate career.

He didn’t have to think very long.

“No fear,” he said matter-of-factly. “I was fearless this week. The coaches had talked to me about playing like I had nothing to lose and letting it all hang out, and that’s what I did. I stopped being so tentative on the front nine and just went for every shot. And it paid off big-time. We won, I won and it’s just a great feeling right now to finally be able to go out and pull out a win for my team and myself.”

Mitchell, who etched his name in the UGA record books during Day 1 on Sunday with an 8-under — the second-lowest round in school history — not only finished as the low medallist for the first time since coming to Athens four years ago, but he led the Bulldogs to the team title at the ODU/Outerbanks Collegiate Invitational in their fall season finale. Mitchell closed with a blistering 5-under 67 on Tuesday, while Georgia won as a team by four shots.

“I felt the pressure, but I never really let it get to me. And it ended up not only being a great tournament for the team, but it was fun to go out as one of our captains and get this win,” said Mitchell, a former Deerfield-Windsor star who won The Herald’s 2007 Player of the Year honors. “To be honest, I wasn’t really worried about winning individually, I just wanted us to close (out the fall season) strong. I think (this win sends a message) you can’t count us out (of any tournament heading into the spring season).”

Mitchell, who said he’d been receiving texts of congratulations from friends and family back home in Albany from almost the moment he came off the course Tuesday, was just a sophomore last year when the Bulldogs went from barely sneaking into the NCAA National Championships to making a stunning run to finish runner-up behind two-time defending NCAA Champion — and neighbor — Augusta State.

The Bulldogs were loaded a season ago with seniors Harris English of Thomasville and Russell Henley of Macon, and Mitchell knew once the duo graduated it would be on him as one of only two juniors on the team to raise his game if Georgia wanted to make another run at a national title.

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Albany’s T.J. Mitchell, center, and his Georgia teammates and coaches smile with their trophies after winning the ODU/Outerbanks Collegiate Invitational on Tuesday. (University of Georgia/Special to The Herald)

This season, Mitchell and fellow junior Bryden Macpherson — the team’s other elder statesmen — have led the Bulldogs to a No. 15 national ranking. And now they have a great chance to make another jump up thanks to Tuesday’s win when the final fall rankings come out next week.

At Kilmarlic Golf Club, the Bulldogs posted a final-round 12-under-par 276 to wind up at 30-under 834. Georgia pulled away on the back nine for a four-shot victory against second-place Liberty.

And as if this finish for Mitchell and the Bulldogs wasn’t already sweet enough, UGA’s 30-under team score went down as the seventh-best mark in school history.

“It was so nice to look in the eyes of all our players after this one,” said UGA coach Chris Haack, who has piloted the Bulldogs to 46 tournament titles in 16 seasons. “These guys have worked so hard, and you could tell that it meant a lot to them. We’ve got a pretty green team and we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re really going to enjoy this one. Winning a tournament is a feeling that never gets old.”

Mitchell closed with a 5-under 67 to finish first at 15-under 201. He posted a two-shot win over Liberty’s Robert Karlsson, with whom he was paired Tuesday during the final round.

“It was a lot of fun playing with (Robert),” Mitchell said. “He kept the pressure on me (and the team) all day, but we just played great overall and we pretty much had it wrapped up going into the final hole — I had a three-shot lead individually and we led as a team by five shots.”

To put into perspective what Mitchell accomplished this week, consider this:

---- Mitchell’s three-day, 15-under final score also tied the school record for the second-lowest of all-time after he finished the tournament with three eagles and 14 birdies.

--- Mitchell’s final three-round total just missed tying the school record held by Chris Kirk’s 18-under 195 at the 2007 All-American Classic, and Mitchell matched Ryan Hybl’s 15-under from the 2000 Golf World Invitational.

--- His 8-under first round score is second only to Peter Persons’ 9-under 63 at the 1984 Alarcon Classic

“My coaches just came to me and said (before this week) to go out there playing like I had nothing to lose. They said, ‘Why play scared? Just go for it,’ ” he recalled. “I just tried not to care anymore about one shot or another and let it happen.”

Mitchell said the turning point of his tournament came during his history-making first round when he eagled the Par 5, No. 9.

“I hit a driver, then a 3-iron to 8 feet from the hole, made the putt, then turned around and shot a 30 on the back nine with 8 birdies and a bogey,” he said. “I knew I had it going then.”

Believe it or not, this was not Mitchell’s lowest score of his collegiate career. He fired a staggering 61 during NCAA qualifying last year to tie the lowest score in school history during a qualifying tournament and take the lead in the event with a round to play. And while he shot 75 the final day and finished ninth — his best finish before Tuesday’s medallist honor — the Bulldogs were able to qualify for nationals by one stroke, thanks in large part to Mitchell’s amazing round.

Of course, if you ask head UGA coach Chris Haack, Tuesday’s first college victory for Mitchell was not a matter of if, but when.

“I could not be prouder of T.J.,” Haack said. “He got off to such a great start and really just kept his foot on the gas. Coming in, he knew what was at stake for the team and for him individually, and he never backed off. He really grew up this week.”

Mitchell said Haack had a simple message for him afterward.

“He said, ‘Way to get it done,’ ” Mitchell said. “He was really happy for me.”

Keith Mitchell (no relation to T.J.) and Macpherson also recorded Top 10 efforts. Keith shot a 10-under 206, including a final-round 4-under 68, to come in a career-best third, while Macpherson signed for a 2-under 70 on Tuesday to wind up eighth with a 1-under 215. Macpherson has recorded three Top 10 finishes in Georgia’s four fall events.

The Bulldogs’ Brian Carter shot a 1-under 71 on Tuesday to finish 13th at 1-over 217, and Michael Cromie came in 23rd at 3-over 219, including a final-round 3-over 75.

The Bulldogs will resume their schedule Feb. 19-21 in the Puerto Rico Shootout.

And Mitchell can’t wait.

But before he can get back to the links, the consumer economics majors has a few things to take care of in the classroom first.

“I need to (go home and) hit the books a little,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve had this 15-page paper hanging over my head all week, and I’ve been worrying about it, but I tried not to let it affect me too much. Now it’s time to go back and get it done.”

Just like he did this week on the golf course.