Ex-Baseball Pro Mitchell Win Away From Ultimate Golf Dream
By David Shefter, USGA
River Hills, Wis. – Growing up as a baseball player in Bloomington, Ill., Todd Mitchell’s dream was to someday play in Busch Stadium, the home of his beloved St. Louis Cardinals.
When he was drafted in the 14th round by the New York Yankees in 1999 following three seasons at Illinois State, Mitchell’s goals changed. Now he hoped to wear the famed pinstripes at Yankee Stadium, one of the cathedrals in all of sports, not just baseball.
That pipedream ended for the shortstop after only two seasons in the minor leagues.
But with one more strong performance at Milwaukee Country Club on Thursday, the 30-year-old insurance agent likely will be headed to one of golf’s grand venues: Augusta National.
It’s a prize the 264 competitors who gathered here this week for the 2008 U.S. Mid-Amateur all yearned to achieve. Mitchell is one of two players remaining who has a chance to fulfill that dream.
A dominating performance on Wednesday – he posted victories of 9 and 7 (over Chris Lange in the quarterfinals) and 4 and 3 (over Sean Knapp in the semis) – has Mitchell on the precipice of a USGA national championship. He’ll face 38-year-old Steve Wilson of Ocean Springs, Miss., in Thursday’s 36-hole final.
Not bad for a guy who never played golf in college nor has even tried the mini-tour life.
Well, sort of. He did play minor-league baseball at Staten Island, N.Y. (Yankees’ short-season Class A team in New York-Penn League) and Greensboro, N.C. (Class A South-Atlantic League). Eight- to 10-hour bus rides, staying in cheap motels and eating fast food can wear on anyone. Being a middle-round draft pick didn’t help, either. While he hit a respectable .270 at Staten Island, his playing time began to dwindle in Greensboro as the Yankees played prospects with higher draft value and financial investment. Several teammates did eventually make it to the big leagues, including Andy Phillips and Willie Mo Pena, and at Illinois State he played in the Missouri Valley League against Ryan Howard (Missouri State), now a star with the Philadelphia Phillies.
But two years in the minors had Mitchell convinced to return to Illinois State for his degree in exercise physiology and settle down in Bloomington. That gave him a chance to play his other passion – golf – and his natural talent has been good enough to land him spots at the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont (2003), Merion (2005) and Pinehurst (2008) as well as the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur, where he rallied with a second-round 68 at Bandon Dunes in the rain – the only sub-70 round of the day – to make the match-play cut.
He had a similar situation this year, making a 12-foot par putt at the ninth hole (his last of the round) at Brown Deer Park to get into a 19-for-14 playoff at 7-over 147 after 36 holes of stroke play. He survived that Monday playoff and five matches later, he’s playing for the Bob Jones Memorial Trophy.
“I would say survival is during stroke play,” said Mitchell, who has a 2½-year-old daughter (Reese) and 10-month-old son (Myles) at home. “After that … you don’t have any expectations. The one thing I have done well this week is I have not gotten ahead of myself. I don’t think about what’s going to happen tomorrow. I haven’t read anything, which is very unusual for me. Normally when I get somewhere I like to read everything. I’ve been out of the loop. I go to bed early and watch SportsCenter.
“Right now, I’m out here just playing. I wake up every morning and I get to come here. It’s an absolute treat.”
While it might be difficult to completely ignore what’s at stake Thursday, Mitchell says he will do everything in his power to block it out. He was asked if getting a Masters invitation would equate to playing in a big-league park.
“The only thing … would be to play in those venues in a World Series,” he said. “You are going to have two guys out here trying to win. It’s just the prize that comes along with it. Whether or not that happens, I’ve had a great week. I can’t say enough good things. I am just excited to get to come back and play tomorrow.”
If he plays Thursday like he did on Wednesday, Mitchell will be tough to beat. He made six birdies in 11 holes to beat Lange by the second-largest margin in Mid-Amateur history for an 18-hole match. While he wasn’t quite that sizzling against Knapp, Mitchell did close with birdies on two of his last four holes, shooting the equivalent of even par (with concessions).
“I wish I could have given Todd a better match,” said Knapp, who advanced to a USGA semifinal for the first time in his illustrious amateur career. “He’s a great player. There is only one winner. I am going to build on this week. I don’t think my golf career is over.”
Mitchell’s amateur career could be blossoming before everyone’s eyes. He’s already a well-known quantity in Illinois, where he won the state amateur in 2002 and ’03, and was the 2008 Illinois Mid-Amateur champion. He skipped this year’s Illinois Amateur to play in the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst.
By virtue of his Mid-Amateur final appearance, he’s exempt into the 2009 U.S. Amateur and free from local qualifying for the 2009 U.S. Open. A victory gets him a 10-year U.S. Mid-Amateur exemption, which he’ll likely fulfill since he has no plans to play for pay.
Interesting enough, his wife, Christine, got her Master’s degree the same year (2002) that Todd earned his bachelor’s degree at ISU.
On Thursday, Mitchell shoots for different kind of Masters degree.
David Shefter is a USGA New Media staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.