PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Last year T.J. Mitchell was one of many stars on the Georgia golf team. This year he is looked to as an elder statesman.
It is a role, Mitchell — the team’s only upperclassman — relishes. On a squad full of sophomores and freshmen, the lone junior is ready to be the one the younger players look to for leadership.
“We went from me being pretty much the only young guy to me being the oldest guy by two years,” Mitchell said. “It’s been fun trying to help them out. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Last season, Mitchell was the only sophomore on a lineup that was packed with seniors. That squad finished second in the NCAA Championship and Mitchell said in some ways this year’s team is stronger.
“Last year we had the top three stars but this year we have had a lot of guys step up,” Mitchell said. “I had the experience of being here before. I was number four and we didn’t have a lot of depth beyond that. This year we have seen nine guys play in a tournament.”
There have been at least five guys who have played in the top spot this year, but Mitchell has the most competitive rounds on the team with 31.
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“Competition is the main thing that pushes you,” Mitchell said. “Knowing that you could lose your spot, we’ve had a lot of guys play in the No. 1 spot this year. It doesn’t matter if you are No. 1 or 5, you are going to contribute.”
It has been that consistency that has propelled the Bulldogs to the finals. Two years ago they missed going after losing in a playoff. Last year they made it by a stroke, but this year they breezed into the finals, winning by four shots.
The team was helped this season by Joey Garber, a sophomore who transferred from Michigan. The Wolverines finished tied for 10th in last year’s championship. Garber, along with Mitchell have been able to provide mentoring to the other players.
“We were just telling the guys every shot counts,” Mitchell said. “You are going to have three-putts, but don’t compound the mistakes. Try and forget that hole and make good swings the next hole.”
Coach Chris Haack turned to both Mitchell and Garber to lead the team.
“My coach said there are guys that ride the wagon and there are guys that pull it,” Mitchell said. “He said I can’t be the guy that rides the whole time. We need people who can pull it and teach the younger guys lessons about the game.”
It was pressure that Haack knew Mitchell could handle and it was a responsibility Mitchell looked forward to.
“I like having pressure on me like that,” Mitchell said.”That’s my main thing. I knew the pressure was coming, so I was expecting it.”
Now Mitchell is experiencing added pressure at the Championships, but is welcoming that as well.
“I try and tell them to have fun,” Mitchell said. “I was told by the guys who were above me you don’t realize how special this time is. No one is going to remember your score so don’t put so much pressure on yourself.”