By Alex Podlogar
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Put Don Padgett II and Kelly Mitchum in the same pairing, and one could only imagine the conversation.
What could they have talked about?
Gosh, where to begin?
Padgett could’ve mentioned his eight PGA Championship appearances, when he made the cut four times and finished as the low club pro three times.
Mitchum could’ve countered with his own experiences in golf’s last major championship of the year, in which he has competed four times since 2005.
Or perhaps Padgett could’ve mentioned his All-American career at Indiana, his life on the PGA Tour from 1972-74, or the championship-low 66 he shot while paired with Lee Trevino in the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills.
Mitchum, then, might’ve mentioned his own All-American career at N.C. State, his North & South Amateur Championship in 1993, his Walker Cup appearance or his run to the semifinals in the 1992 U.S. Amateur.
Of course, none of that happened. Both men are much too modest.
But on Friday, they did finally play against each other for the first time. Named for beloved golf professional Frank Palumbo, the Palumbo Cup at Pinehurst has been contested since 1993, pitting the golf professionals at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in a match play tournament that culminates with the championship being decided on famed Pinehurst No. 2.
And there, two of Pinehurst’s most celebrated professionals engaged in a back-and-forth affair that ended with Mitchum prevailing 3 & 2. It is Mitchum’s sixth-straight Palumbo Cup championship and his 15th overall (he won nine straight from 1998-2006), by far the most in tournament history.
But Padgett, Pinehurst’s president from 2004-2014 and current Executive Emeritus, made him work for it.
“Oh, I knew it was going to be very competitive,” Mitchum said.
As Mitchum struggled with his short game to start on a brisk, windy morning, Padgett’s steady game was in fine form, leading to a 2-up lead through just two holes.
And though Mitchum responded with a birdie on the short par-4 3rd, Padgett kept the heat on a with a steely approach on the par-3 6th that led to an easy par and the same 2-up cushion when the pair stepped to the 9th tee.
“It was looking like I was going to be scrapping just to make it to the 18th,” Mitchum said.
Padgett missed the green right, but Mitchum stuck his tee shot to just 6 feet, leading to a birdie as they made the turn.
And as Mitchum’s short game rounded into form, so too did the match in his favor.
Mitchum missed both his drive and his approach into bunkers on the right side of the 12th hole, and while Padgett split the fairway, his approach ended up just short of the left side of the green. Padgett pitched to about 5 feet, but Mitchum’s splash from the bunker was perhaps his best shot to that point, leaving himself just 3 feet for par. When Padgett missed, Mitchum saved par, moving back within one hole in the match.
“That was by far the turning point,” Mitchum said. “He’s in good position and looks like he’s going to make par – although there are no easy putts on these greens right now. Fortunately I was able to hit a good bunker shot. I was just trying to stay 1-down and ended up walking off even, and that totally changed the match.”
With one of the most treacherous hole locations on No. 2 – the flag was tucked into the front-right portion of the 13th green – Padgett failed to get up-and-down, leading to another Mitchum win and his first lead in the match. Another solid par on 14 put Mitchum 2-up.
But it was Mitchum’s save on 15 that essentially won the championship. After blowing his tee shot on the par-3 wide right, Mitchum found himself short-sided on a tight lie just beyond the reach of the bunker.
Padgett, meanwhile, was sitting just 12 feet for birdie after perhaps his best shot of the day – a gorgeous hybrid that rode the wind on a rail on the most aggressive line either player had attempted at any point in the match.
But Mitchum blasted a bump-and-run pitch hard into the firm bank, bouncing the ball softly onto the green and leaving himself about 8 feet for par. Padgett’s birdie attempt came up short, opening the door for Mitchum, who buried his putt for par and a critical halve.
“Good up-and-down there, pal,” Padgett said, walking off the green.
“I would’ve much rather been in the bunker because then I couldn’t splashed it onto the green,” Mitchum said. “But as tight as my lie was, I didn’t have a choice but to bump it into the hill. I knew it was doable. I just wanted to give myself a chance, and that did keep him from getting back into it.”
Mitchum closed out the match a hole later with a birdie on 16.
It was a satisfying victory for Mitchum, and one that stands out.
“Yeah, this definitely felt a lot different,” Mitchum said of playing his former boss. “Just playing Mr. Padgett in a match was something I haven’t done before. It was fun.”
And gives them something else to talk about.