U.S. AMATEUR
Late to the Game, Mitchell, 37, Keeps Ousting Youngsters August 20, 2015 | Olympia Fields, Ill. By Stuart Hall

Despite seeing some success as a minor league baseball player, Todd Mitchell decided to focus on honing his skills as a competitive golfer. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Todd Mitchell is not quite sure what has led to his inspired run in this U.S. Amateur Championship, but he is certainly relishing the moment.

Mitchell, 37, of Bloomington, Ill., built an early 4-up lead through six holes against 19-year-old Australian Ryan Ruffels and then rode the lead out for a 3-and-2 victory in Thursday morning’s Round of 32 on Olympia Fields Country Club’s North Course. 

“These kids are so good, I’m not sure how I’m doing it right now,” said Mitchell, who knocked off 21-year-old Chase Koepka, No. 82 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ in the first round on Wednesday. Ruffels is No. 10.

"I feel like I am able to compete with them. Maybe not on a week-in and week-out basis, but at least this week I’m able to compete with them."

In six previous U.S. Amateur appearances, Mitchell, who is ranked No. 2,528 in the world, had never advanced past match play’s opening round. His two losses were to Welshman Rhys Davies, who played on two Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup squads, and 2012 U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson.

USGA championship success, though, is not unfamiliar to Mitchell.

Among his varied accomplishments in 20 previous championships, Mitchell was the runner-up in the 2008 U.S. Mid-Amateur, helped lead Illinois to a third-place tie in the 2010 USGA Men’s State Team Championship, and teamed with 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Scott Harvey to reach the semifinals of the inaugural U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif., in early May.

“It’s not one of those things I ever think about how many of these I have played in,” said Mitchell, dismissing the notion that he is drawing upon that success and experience. “I’m just trying to focus on what I need to do at that time and try to stop thinking about everything else going on, like being 2 up with three holes to go."

Unlike the majority of the field, Mitchell did not start focusing on golf until after his first career was complete.

In 1999, Mitchell, an All-Missouri Valley Conference shortstop at Illinois State University, was selected by the New York Yankees in the 14th round of the Major League Baseball Draft. Though he hit .270 for the Staten Island Yankees of the Class A New York-Penn League in 2000, a career in baseball was unappealing. 

“I didn’t see the writing on the wall, a life in baseball just wasn’t for me,” Mitchell said. “I thought I had a future in the game, but I would have had to go through the process and I just didn’t. I did not enjoy it all."

So Mitchell turned his attention to a more conventional lifestyle, becoming an insurance salesman and starting a family. Golf filled the competitive void.

“I always knew I was going to play golf after baseball, but I was just so new to everything that I didn’t know what to play,” he said. “I played in some city events, then some state events and it just spiraled to things bigger and bigger.”

In 2002 and 2003, Mitchell won the Illinois State Amateur Championship. In 2003 he also played in his first U.S. Amateur, at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa.

In Thursday afternoon’s Round of 16, Mitchell faces another college-age foe, Matthew Perrine, a sophomore at Baylor University. How the rest of this championship will unfold for Mitchell, he is unsure, but he “didn’t come in here with anything,” he said, so perhaps the pressure-free week can continue straight to Sunday’s 36-hole championship.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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