Mike Small: Living the dream
CHAMPAIGN — Mike Small's golf game is in bad shape.
We say that in relative terms, of course, and mainly because Small keeps telling us so.
"I'm shooting scores I haven't shot in 10 years," he says. This is hardly an attempt at self-pity. It's more like Mike Small being Mike Small, as honest as his scorecard, like a golfer is expected to be. He knows what good golf is, and right now he's not playing it.
Last week Small shot 7 over through two rounds and missed the cut at the Colorado Open. Three weeks ago he finished tied for 26th at the Illinois Open.
"My worst finish in the Illinois Open ever," he says.
Small leaves out the part where he's won the Illinois Open four times and the Illinois PGA nine times. But this is the standard he built for his playing career. Adjusting personal expectations, in any endeavor, isn't a process that comes easily. He knows what good golf is, and right now he's not playing it.
"This is the first time I can feel my age (47) when I'm playing."
Perhaps there's a simple explanation for this mini-slump, even if he's slow to admit it, fearful it comes across as an excuse.
In order to play good golf, you need to actually play.
He doesn't practice or play as much as he needs to. "My life has grown," as he puts it.
These two weeks provide a fine example of what he means by that. The Illinois men's golf coach, Small tees off Thursday in the PGA Championship, the 11th major of his career.
There are two guarantees heading into the season's final major: A) The rough on the Ocean Course will look like a Vermilion County cornfield in June B) Small will be the only player in the 154-man field who wasn't practicing the week before a major.
That was his plan, to practice. "A crash course on my short game," he says. Instead, the coach got a call last Monday. One of his top recruiting targets was playing an event in Fort Wayne, Ind. For three days, Small hit the road instead of the range.
"I gotta go," he says with a grin. "I've gotta be there."
Such are the obligations in building a college golf powerhouse, even at the expense of his playing career.
Small smiles again. It's nearing dusk at the family's home in southwest Champaign. He leans back in the patio furniture. In the distance, a pitching wedge away, a fish breaks the surface of the lake that borders their back porch. Across the street is No. 4 — a par 3 over water — at Lincolnshire Fields Country Club. The course is in brilliant condition.
"Nice back here, isn't it?" he says.
Mike Small knows what a good life is, and right now he's living it.
If Mike and Andy Small weren't home by dark, their parents rarely worried.
The Little League field was a short walk from their home. The YMCA wasn't far, either. And if their bicycles were gone, Bill and Kay knew the brothers were probably at the Danville Elks Country Club. Bob Hare, the club pro, took a liking to the boys, and Mike got a job at the course shortly after his 10th birthday. He'd pick range balls, wash carts, sweep the shop.
And Mike would chip and putt until the sun went down.
"That's probably why his short game is so solid," his father says.
"He had a very good short game," says Neil Moore, the pro at Danville Country Club, who began working with Mike after his senior year of high school. "He was always good around the greens — putting, chipping, sand play. That's always been a strong suit of his."
"Playing golf, it was the cool thing to do in Danville back then," Mike says.
The Smalls moved to Danville in 1974. It's where Mike and his wife, Ann, started dating as juniors in high school, although they've known each other since the third grade. Ann was the prom queen. Mike's golf team won an IHSA state title in 1982.
"It's (Danville) where our kids (Will and Wyatt) were born," Mike says.
Bill Small captained the 1962-63 Illini basketball team, which had three players drafted into the NBA. Mike's father turned down a contract with the Pistons. "I think it was 7,500 bucks and a pair of Converse shoes," Bill says. If not for a knee injury, Bill would have been selected to the U.S. basketball roster for the 1964 Olympics. After college he was the top scorer on his AAU team. Five teammates were named to the Olympics team.
"The boys played every (darn) sport you can imagine," Bill says.
These days the Smalls are neighborly close. Bill and Kay moved in down the street, causing Mike to joke, "Pretty soon my dad's just going to move into our basement."
"Next week he's gone to the PGA (Championship)," his dad counters. "And we're stuck here taking care of their bird and their dog and their house."
It has always been an Illini family. The Smalls had season tickets for football and basketball from 1974 to 2002. Mike remembers Chubby Phillips' kickoff returns and Audie Matthews' game-winner in the corner.
Andy, the youngest brother, earned four letters and the 1990 Big Ten title with Illinois baseball. Mike entered the Illinois golf program without a scholarship and later helped the Illini to the Big Ten title in 1988.
"Playing with (UI teammate Steve) Stricker was a huge thing for me," Mike says. "If he didn't come here, I don't know what I would be doing. I saw what good golf was."
All of these Illini ties factored in when Small was approached with job offers from other schools in the past six months. Arizona is a ready-made, traditional power. Kansas could be one, he believes, and the KU administration courted Small with a tempting package.
"I thought about it. I really did," Small says. "People have known through the grapevine that Arizona is one job I would think about. And (Arizona) knew that. That was a very intriguing thing. And the Kansas one was very intriguing to me. They wanted me to build the same thing there that we've built here. And they would give me everything I needed."
It was intriguing enough that Small asked his teenage boys for their opinion on a move.
"When your kids look you in the face and they say, 'I don't want to go,' it's pretty convincing," he says. "Plus, I'm an Illini. It would be selfish on my part. For my kids and for my wife, that would be tough. She (Ann) has been so supportive through my career with me being gone all the time. I need to tell her more often how much I appreciate her.
"If those (offers) came up five years ago or five years from now? It might be different. But right now was a tough time."
Since he was hired as the coach at Illinois in 2000, Small says he has never signed a contract. He still hasn't signed the new one. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas recently extended Small's deal through 2017, securing the coach of arguably the department's strongest program.
"The strength of the program starts with Coach Small himself. In my eyes he's the best coach in the country," Thomas says. "What he's done at Illinois is remarkable, especially for a Northern school. What we've done in the Big Ten and in the NCAAs, it starts with him. In a lot of ways, for me, he's like an AD's dream coach."
Roughly two years ago, Small and his Illini golf team were making the turn during a practice round at Stone Creek Golf Club in Urbana.
On the front nine, the coach fired a pedestrian 36, ho-hum, before upping the virtual ante.
"He was notorious for that," former Illini Zach Barlow says. "Then we'd make a bet on the back nine to get out of some study hours. All the sudden he shoots 29 on the back.
"And your study hours go from eight to 12."
In college golf, it might be the greatest recruiting pitch imaginable: Want to play on the PGA Tour? Come play for a guy who did.
It is how Small landed Thomas Pieters, a prodigy in Belgium. Pieters didn't know Champaign from Tempe. But he knew the coach had played in nearly a dozen major championships, and his parents had watched Small perform on the Golf Channel.
"I had something he wanted," the coach says.
It's the rare college coach who transcends the program. But Mike Small is Illinois golf.
The story says Pieters chose Illinois over powers Texas and Florida State. In reality, he chose Mike Small over Texas and Florida. Now the UI junior is the eighth-ranked amateur in the world and "could be the best of all of the guys I've had," Small says.
At the NCAA Championships in May, coaches from other warm-weather schools marveled when the announcer said, "For the second time in three years, the national (individual) champion is from the University of Illinois." Scott Langley won it in 2010; Pieters followed suit in 2012.
Illinois has won the past four Big Ten championships, the longest run in the league since the dominant Ohio State teams of the 1980s. It's one of the six programs to qualify for the past five NCAA Championships, an elite pairing that includes Florida, Texas, Texas A&M, USC, UCLA and Illinois. One doesn't look like the others.
Illinois' success has allowed Small to recruit a different caliber of player. His early teams were competitive with scrappy grinders who survived on mental toughness. Now the program is in position to out-recruit Stanford (for Langley), Oklahoma State (Luke Guthrie) and Texas (Pieters). Illinois' four incoming freshmen are from Wisconsin, California, Illinois and Belgium. One of those, Tom Detry, grew up in the same Belgium city as Pieters.
"At that age he's better than Thomas," Small says.
"I think the top programs are scared of us when they see us recruiting a kid now," he adds. "They say, 'If Illinois is recruiting this guy, we need to get in on him.' Or if we're recruiting against Texas (for example), we're a formidable recruiting foe."
The freshmen will learn early Small's coaching extends beyond the indoor Demirjian Golf Practice Facility. Freshmen are taught to iron their golf shirts, the proper handshake, how to shine their shoes — even the correct way to wear an Illini hat.
"You don't wear it sideways. You don't wear it high off your forehead," Small says. "You wear it low. It's there to take the sun out of your eyes."
During a practice round at the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club, Mike Small was invited into a lucrative side wager against Aaron Baddeley and Jason Gore.
Small played well, but his team lost the Nassau. His generous partner wouldn't allow Small to pay for their losses.
"I said, 'Phil (Mickelson), I can pay my own bet.' He said, 'No, I played bad. I'm paying the bet.' "
At one point or another, Small has held course records at roughly 20 golf courses. His favorite might be the 61 he shot on a course in Ohio.
"The members were so mad. They couldn't say Jack Nicklaus had their course record anymore. Some guy named Mike Small did."
The latest course record was a 66 in Seaside, Calif., in the first round of the PGA Professional National Championship. That was in June. Small finished fourth in the event, showing his game isn't entirely out of whack, even if he claims so.
Still, the 47-year-old says he can feel his age. He's uncertain if he'll make a run at the Senior Tour when he's eligible in three years. "Who knows?" he says.
More likely, it's not age limiting his golf game. It's time. As Illinois golf has risen in stature, so have the demands of coaching it. "I'm a coach first and a player second," Small says, and his limited preparation for this week's PGA Championship attests to that.
Yet he's one year removed from earning low club pro honors at the PGA Championship. And he won his first of three PGA National Championship titles at Kiawah, the site of this week's PGA. He knows as well as anyone what good golf is.
"I would love to have one more great PGA event or major before I'm done. Just shoot a good enough score where I'm in the mix on the final day. Just to get that feeling," he says. "Going and enjoying the experience — I'm past that. I want to go and play well. It's a fear of failure that motivates me. I don't want to stop doing this. I want to play good golf."