Asmussen | Illini coach Small no longer doubts Tiger

Asmussen | Illini coach Small no longer doubts Tiger

CHAMPAIGN — Of course, he watched. Just like the rest of us.

Illinois men's golf coach Mike Small was glued to his television Sunday morning and afternoon. Because Tiger Woods was back in the hunt at the Masters.

"I thought it was awesome," Small said. "It was a feel-good story, the way he's come back from his trials and tribulations."

Woods rallied from two strokes back at the start of the round to win his fifth green jacket and 15th major overall.

What impressed Small the most?

"As a coach, I like the way he won the tournament," Small said. "He won it playing with strength. He didn't go out there and change his game plan and get wrapped up in the emotion. He stayed solid. He stayed composed. He stayed focused."

Woods hit all the right shots on the back nine.

"He was hitting it flush 20 feet from the holes," Small said. "That's what you have to do at Augusta. His goal was to play solid golf and have everybody else kind of fold and make mistakes. They did and he didn't."

Small said all of the current Illini players watched the Masters.

"For four straight days," Small said. "They love that stuff. They're big Tiger fans and they want Tiger to do well. They're excited and we talked about it at practice (Monday)."

Woods winning is good for golf. And good for the PGA Tour.

"The purses would not be where they are today and those guys wouldn't have made the money they make today if it wasn't for Tiger Woods," Small said.

Familiar face

Over the years, Small has met Woods a few times.

One came on the 18th green at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. The 2007 PGA Championship was Woods' 13th major victory.

As the best finisher among Club Professionals, Small was honored along with Woods.

"I spent 10 minutes with him waiting to get our awards," Small said. "It was really fun."

Small remembers it vividly.

"You'd think someone who had won 12 majors, it would be old hat to him," Small said. "But he was so fired up on adrenaline, so excited, sweating profusely. I couldn't believe how juiced and excited he was that he had won another major.

"He was acting like it was his first. It blew me away how much he loves to win and loves to compete and how vital winning is to him. It was refreshing to see someone who had that much success still loved to win that much."

Not so sure

Put Small in the camp of golf fans who wondered if Woods would ever return to past glory.

"I doubted him," Small said. "I saw him three years ago, four years ago out in Phoenix. His body was hurting. His surgeries he had were all major surgeries.

"His game had fallen. He was shooting in the 80s. He was hitting chips and skulling them across the green. I was concerned for him at that point. I didn't think he'd ever make it back."

In 2018, Woods found what had appeared to be permanently lost. He contended in the British Open and the PGA Championship. And he won the Tour Championship.

"I believe his golf swing is better than it's been since the year 2000," Small said.

That year, Woods won nine tournaments, including three majors.

The comeback by Woods reminds Small of a return to form made by former Illini Steve Stricker.

A two-time PGA tournament winner in 1996, Stricker had just one victory in the next decade.

"For five years, Steve was the worst driver of the golf ball on the PGA Tour," Small said of his close friend. "He tried to find help and couldn't find it. Then, he found it in himself. He problem-solved his own game and then he came back and went to No. 2 in the world. Tiger's done the same thing. He's got away from all these teachers and kind of gone to his own, thinking it through."

Is Woods done winning?

"I would not sell him short now," Small said. "If he was ever going to win one of the majors, the Masters was the one he was going to win because he knows that course better than any other course. He's played that thing for 22 years. The Masters sets up the best for him."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Golf, Sports
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