Asmussen | Senior duo forge strong bond with Small

Asmussen | Senior duo forge strong bond with Small

The two seniors are almost out of here.

Illinois golfers Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer started play in the NCAA Columbus regional on Monday, helping the Illini end the first round in third place. If it goes well the rest of the week — and it usually does for Mike Small's team — Hardy and Meyer will close their Illinois careers at the NCAA finals May 25-30 in Stillwater, Okla.

Then, Hardy and Meyer will turn pro. They will seek fame and fortune on the PGA Tour.

But they will be back.

Probably a lot.

Thomas Pieters is a rising star in pro golf. He comes back to Champaign-Urbana.

Luke Guthrie and Scott Langley will soon return to the PGA Tour. They come back to C-U. So do recent Illini stars Thomas Detry and Charlie Danielson.

It's all because of Small, who has built a powerhouse program in the Midwest.

Golf's version of a miracle.

"They don't need to call me to make me think about them," Small said. "But I'm not going to step into their life unless they want me to. I'm not a stalker coach where I'm going to follow them around.

"My job for four years is to prepare them for the next level so they don't need me. I need to wean them off me so they're ready to get out of the nest and they can go do it."

Strong connection

Hardy first met Small during recruiting. The Glenbrook North graduate ranked among the top 15 players nationally as a senior.

He was full of talent and potential. And found a good match at Illinois.

"I have a lot of respect for Coach," Hardy said. "It's evolved as a pretty good relationship. I think he bounces things off me more than he had early on. I think that's the difference."

At times, Small challenged Hardy early in his career. That was fine with the player.

"He's tough on everyone," Hardy said.

Naturally, they had their moments. Of course, Hardy had to bite his tongue once in a while.

"He's doing the right thing if he's making you mad," Hardy said. "If a coach isn't making you upset or angry, then he's not doing his job as a coach. He's not pushing you and not making you face adversity."

Did Hardy ever make Small mad?

"Definitely," Hardy said. "That's all part of the deal. I think every player frustrates their coach and every coach frustrates the player. You might not want to hear the truth sometimes, but Coach will deliver the truth."

Speaking the truth creates lasting respect. That's part of the reason why former Illini come back so often.

"I want to come back and donate to the university and give back to the program," Hardy said. "That's something I see myself doing. I think it's pretty cool when a lot of players want to come back and donate their time and efforts."

Small said Hardy is the kind of player he wants at Illinois.

"He's been a joy to coach," Small said. "He's one kid on the team I've never had to inspire to practice, inspire to win. He's had the engine to be great."

Hardy's progress hasn't been a straight line. There have been some dips along the way. Healthy dips.

"He's had adversity and he's met it," Small said. "He's figured out what he has to do and how to get better."

Rough patch

Meyer remembers his first meeting with Small, who he called "intimidating.

"He came in with the sunglasses, the black top, the standard Coach look," Meyer said.

The early years between Small and Meyer weren't easy.

"We butted heads at first," Meyer said.

Meyer got over it. Wise move. The change came before Meyer's sophomore season.

"I finally realized he's there to help me more than he is trying to push his own agenda," Meyer said. "He's there for me and the program."

Small wants his players to believe in themselves.

"Dylan is stubborn," Small said. "I think that's healthy. It's normal. Show me one competitor, one professional athlete, that's been great that hasn't had a little stubbornness. They think they know it all.

"As a coach, it's your job to get them to see your point of view and to have that growth without offending them."

Today, they are close.

"He's my biggest supporter whenever I need him and he's also the biggest critic whenever I need it," Meyer said.

"Kids will listen to you if they know you really care," Small said. "I want them to be great."

Meyer said he always thought Small trusted him. But the level of trust has increased.

Like Hardy, Meyer plans to stay in touch.

"I always told him, 'You've got me for four years plus a lot more,'" Meyer said. "I'm always going to be around. I'm always going to call him and bug him about questions I have about my short game or full swing. Or if I want to come back to campus. He's really put me into that level where I play really good."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-3511-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Golf, Sports