With rounds of 62-64, Keith Mitchell grabs CJ Cup lead and is proving Rory McIlroy knows what he’s talking about

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LAS VEGAS – When speaking to the depth of talent in professional golf earlier this week, Rory McIlroy took his mind back to the final round of this year’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina.

He was paired with Keith Mitchell in the final group, with Mitchell two shots ahead with 18 to play. McIlroy, who went on to win that day, knew right away he would have his hands full dealing with Mitchell.

“The talent is so deep that people wouldn’t maybe pick a Keith Mitchell to win a tournament at the start of a week, but you play with him in a final round on a Sunday, he stopped me in my tracks. I was like, he is a hell of a player,” McIlroy said. “He came out and he hits it in the left bunker on 1, hits an unbelievable 7‑iron to like 10 feet and holes the putt.

“And people don’t realize you could say that about 100 guys out there, depending on who you play with. I think that just sort of illustrates how deep the fields are.”

True to McIlroy’s words, Mitchell’s been a hell of a player this week.

A day after opening with a 10-under-par 62 in the first round of the CJ Cup at The Summit, Mitchell tacked on a 64 Friday to grab the 36-hole lead at 18 under. He is five shots clear of Jordan Spieth (66-65), Harry Higgs (64-67) and Seonghyeon Kim (68-63). In a group another shot back was Rickie Fowler (66-66).

Mitchell has made 17 birdies and an eagle his first two trips around the soft, windless course, with his only blemish on the card being a bogey on the par-3 11th on Friday when he missed the green.

Mitchell, who tied a PGA Tour record earlier this year by making seven consecutive birdies to start the third round in the 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities in Minnesota, was on pace to match or break Justin Thomas’ PGA Tour record for lowest total after 36 holes. Mitchell’s 126 total fell three shots short of Thomas, who began the 2017 Sony Open with rounds of 59-64.

“I spent a lot of time in the last few days leading up to this tournament working hard on my game and it’s showing,” said Mitchell, who is trying to win for the second time on the PGA Tour. “I’m very thankful for that. Just shows you that hard work pays off as long as you’re doing the right things. My putter’s definitely been nice, and my speed has been a lot better this week.

“If those two things stay through this weekend, hopefully I can keep hitting in some quality shots and capitalizing.”

Hearing the words of McIlroy also gave him some extra juice.

“Everything that Rory says always seems to be the right thing and he usually means it, which is rare these days. So when he gives you a compliment like that, it’s pretty deep,” Mitchell said. “I mean, it means a lot to me because he’s a superstar in our game and I’m not even close to that. So when he calls you out unannounced, it does mean a lot.

“A compliment from anybody out here is special but coming from him is huge.”

Mitchell’s lone PGA Tour title came in the 2019 Honda Classic when he birdied the last hole to beat Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler by one. He’s weathered through some lean times of late, with only five top-10s in his last 51 Tour starts. But his confidence has never been higher as he looks to win his second Tour title.

“It’s been hard, but I had a really good run with Rory at Wells Fargo. I thought I had that one. He made some incredible putts down the stretch and it was close. I don’t want to count that one as a win, but I count that as being in contention,” Mitchell said. “When you’re in contention like that, a lot of it comes down to the last few holes, getting lucky or making a putt or two. Hopefully those can fall in my cards this week as long as I can continue the play that I’m having because definitely (trying to win) the second one for me has seemed to be a lot harder.”

Mitchell started his fifth season on the PGA Tour by missing his first two cuts. But now he feels he’s ready to tackle a specific goal he formulated in the offseason.

“I felt like I’ve either had the game, the potential I should say, to play a lot better than I have on a consistent basis,” he said. “I just wanted to take this year and just try to be as consistent as possible because I felt like feast or famine was kind of my game the last four years and I wanted to be a little bit more consistent, a little bit more patient. Play like a Tour pro and not just like a young kid out there firing at flags. It’s a lot harder to do than I thought, but when your putter’s hot like it was the last couple days, it kind of just makes up for the rest.”

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