Mitchell navigates ‘Snake Pit,’ leads Valspar by two


PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Keith Mitchell capped off a magnificent run through the “Snake Pit” at Innisbrook on Saturday with a shot he never saw go in. His 7-iron from the 18th fairway one-hopped into the hole for eagle and a 5 under and a two-shot lead in the Valspar Championship.

Mitchell was among a dozen players on the fringe of contention at a tournament so tight that it began with all 77 players who made the cut separated by a mere six shots.

That changed when he went 3-2-2 through the closing stretch of the Copperhead course, the first player to do that in tournament history. Mitchell holed a birdie putt just inside 15 feet on the 16th hole, hit 6-iron to inside 3 feet for birdie on the par-3 17th and then holed out on the 18th hole with a 7-iron from about 151 yards up a steep hill.

That puts Mitchell at 10-under 203, two shots clear of Mackenzie Hughes (69), Séamus Power (68) and Peter Malnati (68).

Mitchell knew the shot was good, but something flew into his eye as he followed the flight, causing him to look away and wipe away the speck. Then he heard a loud cheer, looked up and realized the ball had gone in for a most unlikely eagle.

“When I looked up, something kind of flew in my eye, so I kind of looked away and never saw it come down and land,” he said. “But I knew … when I hit it, I was pleased with the contact.”

The 18th green is elevated, and the pin was up front behind a deep bunker, so he wouldn’t have been able to see it go in the hole, anyway. He could hear the crowd, and there was pleasant surprise on his face he couldn’t hide.

There were a few other unpleasant surprises by players who briefly had a share of the lead.

One of them was 50-year-old Stewart Cink, who began the third round in a five-way tie for the lead. He had two early birdies and was leading through seven holes when he three-putted from 30 feet on the par-3 eighth. It only got worse from there. Cink shot 41 on the back nine for a 76, taking him from the lead to nine shots behind.

Justin Thomas birdied his first hole to get into a tie for the lead. That turned out to be his only birdie of what was an atrocious day on the greens. Thomas wound up with a 79 and was near the bottom. He took 38 putts and lost just over 7 shots to the field in the putting metric.

Mitchell, who needs a win to get into the Masters, has reason to feel the finish line feels a lot longer away than just 18 holes.

It was super packed at the start, and even with a two-shot lead, Saturday was a reminder how quickly it can change at Innisbrook and with so many players in the mix.

“No matter how well you played, it was going to be tough to get much better than 4, 5 under, I thought,” Power said. “It’s tough to get away from the pack, so it’s going to be some guys in with a chance.”

Hughes regained the lead with a 40-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, only for Mitchell in the group ahead of him making 2 from the fairway, and then the Canadian losing his drive to the right and into the trees. That led to bogey, and just like that he was two behind.

Malnati birdied the 18th to stay in the hunt.

Chandler Phillips, the PGA Tour rookie who was part of the five-way tie, had a three-putt par on the 11th hole when it looked like he was starting to find some rhythm. He played the rest of the way in 2 over but was still in the mix, three shots behind.

So was Cameron Young, the New Yorker still looking for his first win despite have chances in the majors each of the last three years. He hit a rough patch early in his round that was erased when he holed out with a gap wedge for eagle on the par-4 seventh hole.

Young had four birdies over the next seven holes and was right back in the game.

“It’s a golf course that’s difficult and you know that with the scoring so bunched, it just takes two good swings and you can move up a lot,” Young said. “It’s definitely about as bunched as I’ve ever seen one, but I think provides a lot of opportunities, as well.”

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