Pinehurst PGA Professional playing Wells Fargo in honor of fallen friend
When PGA Professional Kelly Mitchum prepares to tee off in Thursday's first round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte's Quail Hollow Club, he'll hear his name announced -- but he'll have Mike Townsend in his thoughts.
By winning the Carolinas PGA section championship last July, Townsend earned the right to play this week. But the Kiawah Island Club Professional was killed in an automobile accident less than two weeks after his victory, leaving a wife and two young children behind.
Mitchum, a longtime teaching pro and lead instructor at Pinehurst Resort, will take his place. Even though he's played in this tournament on seven previous occasions, he said he'll feel a different set of emotions Thursday.
"This is going to be a different event for me," Mitchum said. "It's one that I wish I could give back. I've already tried to kind of imagine what the first tee shot's going to be like. I'll definitely have thoughts of Mike there. It really has been very tragic, and we're trying to honor him in the best way we can. But it's kind of hard to put into words.
"Mike was a great guy, so personable. I played with him a fair number of times and he was just one of those guys who was easy to talk to, always friendly, always had a smile on his face. Just a good, fun guy to be around. And obviously a fantastic player on top of that. It was one of those kind of sitatuions where you can't believe when you heard the news of what happened."
The opportunity to play in this PGA Tour event now allows Mitchum to do his part to publicize the Michael Townsend Trust Fund. He's hoping fans will pledge money for each birdie or par he makes, or make a flat donation to the trust.
"I wanted to find a way to honor him in some way," Mitchum said. "I feel like I'm playing as his representative, to some degree. It just made sense to try and help his family as best as we can.
"Hopefully this will be a very positive contribution we can make towards the Townsend kids."
Mitchum is very familiar with Quail Hollow, which is good, since he hasn't had a lot of time to prep up until now.
"I'm doing a lot of teaching right now," Mitchum said. "This is our busy time of the year, so my practice time is really relegated to a few golf balls before we get started with class in the morning, maybe a few at lunch time when we take a break and in between lessons. It's tough to squeeze in practice this time of the year but I try to stay loose, maybe hit a few short-game shots here and there."
The native of Galax, Va., loved all sports growing up, but he never tried golf until he was 12, after his family moved to New Zealand.
"I had some friends back in Virginia that had played, so I decided I wanted to try it," he said. "I got started over there, and from almost the first day that I had a club in my hand, I fell in love with it."
Eventually, the Mitchums moved back to the United States, settling in the Southern Pines area by the time Kelly was in high school. He wound up a four-time All-American at N.C. State, won the 1991 ACC Championship, a seminfinalist in the 1992 U.S. Amateur, won the 1993 North & South and looked to be on his way to a successful career as a tour professional.
Unfortunately, things don't always work out as planned. Mitchum kicked around on various satellite tours, hoping -- like many top collegiate stars -- to get that big break. Becoming a PGA Professional? He said at that time, that was the farthest thing from his mind.
"I tried to play for about four years out of college -- local mini tours, Canadian Tour, the Nike Tour," Mitchum said. "I was on the Canadian Tour one summer, and I turned to my wife one day and said, 'You know what? I just don't if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' So I really made a fairly quick decision that pursuing playing full-time wasn't for me."
Mitchum had his degree in statistics from N.C. State to fall back on, but he really wanted to remain in the golf industry in some capacity.
"I probably took a month to try and figure out what to do," Mitchum said. "I couldn't see myself sitting behind a desk, crunching numbers. And golf was what I enjoyed being around -- and what I was good at. So I ended up starting at Pinehurst about 18 years ago now. I wasn't sure at first what direction I wanted to go, but about a year into it, I moved full-time onto the teaching staff."
And Mitchum hasn't regretted it. For him, it's all about helping people learn -- and enjoy -- the game of golf.
"Seeing people get better, helping them hit shots they've never hit before. Helping them shoot better scores," he said. "There's a lot of satisfaction in that. At first, I knew when I got into the golf business, I recognized from the very beginning that teaching the game well was very important. That's actually the reason why I took the position, because I felt the best way to become a good teacher was to do it every day."
You may remember a couple of fascinating trick shots that Mitchum has pulled off in the past. Here's one from earlier this year, when he sank three balls into three separate holes with one stroke.
And then there's this feat of putting from last summer that still amazes us.
He still enjoys the competition -- he was on the winning United States Team in the 2013 PGA Cup at Northumberland, England. And he'd love to play well enough to make the cut in Charlotte. But Kelly Mitchum's main focus will be honoring the memory of Mike Townsend, and by playing "the best that I can and give myself a chance to make the cut," he'll do just that.
Those interested in making donations may do so in one of several ways: by pledging a dollar amount for the number of birdies or pars made by Mitchum at the Wells Fargo Championship, or with a one-time contribution. Contact the Pinehurst Resort Tournaments office at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.