Bobby Mitchell, Journeyman Pro Who Beat Nicklaus In a Playoff

Bobby Mitchell was a PGA Tour member in the 1960s and 1970s best-known for finishing runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in a major, and defeating Nicklaus in a playoff at another tournament. He later became a teaching pro, including working in Finland near the Arctic Circle.

Full name: Bobby Wayne Mitchell

Date of birth: February 23, 1943

Place of birth: Chatham, Virginia

Date and place of death: March 20, 2018 in Danville, Virginia

Mitchell's PGA Tour Wins

Mitchell won twice on the PGA Tour:
  • 1971 Cleveland Open
  • 1972 Tournament of Champions
He won the Cleveland Open by seven strokes over runner-up Charles Coody. At the Tournament of Champions, Mitchell defeated Jack Nicklaus in a playoff, winning with a birdie on the first extra hole.

His Masters Runner-Up and Other Majors

At the 1972 Masters, Bobby Mitchell moved into a tie for fifth place with a third-round 71. Starting the final round four strokes off Jack Nicklaus' lead, Mitchell shot 73 in a tough-scoring final round. That was enough to shave a stroke off Nicklaus' lead and earn a tie for second place. The difference for Mitchell was the 12th hole: Nicklaus played it in 2-under for the week, Mitchell in 6-over — a difference of eight strokes on a single hole.

Mitchell's best finish in a U.S. Open was 12th in 1970, in the PGA Championship 34th in 1971. He never played the Open Championship. His first appearance in a major was at the 1966 U.S. Open, and his last at the 1984 PGA Championship.

More About Bobby Mitchell

Mitchell got into golf the same way many do: He caddied. By the age of 15, he was good enough that he dropped out of high school and turned pro in 1959. Soon he was working as an assistant pro at Danville (Va.) Golf Club.

His first tournament successes were at the state level, winning the Virginia Open and Virginia PGA Open in 1965, and the Carolinas PGA Championship in 1967.

Mitchell played the PGA Tour full time from 1967 through 1976, although he continued making some tournament starts through the 1980s and even into the 1990s (his last PGA Tour start was in 1999). In all, Mitchell played 407 PGA Tour events, finishing in the Top 10 34 times. That included, in addition to his two victories, five second-place finishes and three third-place finishes.

Mitchell's crowning achievement was coming from behind to catch Jack Nicklaus at the 1972 Tournament of Champions. He chased down Nicklaus from two back to tie and force a playoff, then beat Nicklaus on the first extra hole with a 20-foot birdie putt.

But Mitchell finished in the Top 60 on the money list (the requirement at the time to remain exempt from qualifying) only three years: 1969, 1971 and 1972. His best money list finish was 12th in 1972. He said his game went south after that year due to a loss of confidence.

In 1991, Mitchell began spending two months every year working at Green Zone Golf Course in Tornio, Finland, 45 miles south of the Arctic Circle, as the club pro and teaching pro. He continued making that trip every year for 25 years.

In 1994 Mitchell played in the Champions Tour qualifying tournament. He eventually made 56 starts on the senior circuit, the first in 1995 and last in 2004, but never recorded a Top 10 finish.

Mitchell also made a few starts on the Korn Ferry Tour in the early 1990s, in preparation for playing the Champions Tour. Alas, he set a dubious record: In the 1991 Lake City Classic, Mitchell scored 13 on the par-4 sixth hole in the first round. At the time, it was the worst score in that tour's history — a record not broken until another golfer made a 17 on a par-4 in 2019.

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