CHAMPAIGN — Thwack. Wheesh. Plunk.
Thwack. Wheesh. Plunk.
Over and over, the noise filled the basement of Huff Hall. Golf club meets golf ball, into a nearby net.
Thirteen years ago, when Mike Small took over the Illinois men’s golf program, the basement at Huff served as his indoor practice facility. No fancy chipping area. No hitting bays opening to the outside world. Just two old handball courts converted for golf.
“We did that for six years,” Small said. “We made it work. We had no options. Those six years, we weren’t entitled. It built some humbleness. We don’t forget that.”
To say Small and the Illini have come a long way massively understates the improvement.
“We had a last-place team,” Small said. “In those six years, we took them to two national finals and three runners-up in the Big Ten. We were still competitive in the basement of Huff Gym.”
Believe it or not, Illinois is a golf school. Despite its northern climate. Despite having to practice in a musty basement in the early part of Small’s career.
“I don’t know why anyone would go anywhere else,” former Illini Luke Guthrie said. “I had such a great experience. I saw progression in my game, I got better every day, every year.”
Having four players on the PGA Tour says it is so. Steve Stricker owns 12 PGA wins and has been a multitime participant in the Ryder and Presidents cups. D.A. Points won the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am two years ago, pairing with funnyman Bill Murray. Points is an established pro with potentially more wins in his bag.
Then there are the youngsters: first-year Tour players Guthrie and Scott Langley. They have contended this year, Langley finishing tied for third at the Sony Open and Guthrie landing in the Top 30 of three events.
“It’s a nice little fraternity we’re starting out here on Tour,” Guthrie said. “I take a lot of pride in that. I have an Illinois logo on the belly of my bag. It’s a big part of my life.”
“Peers on Tour and the public is starting to understand there are some really good things happening at Illinois,” Langley said.
And there are more on the way. Former Illini Joe Affrunti is working his way back from injury. Chris DeForest has played in the U.S. Open and competed on the Web.com Tour.
On the current team, defending NCAA medalist Thomas Pieters will skip his final year at Illinois and turn pro after this season. Early entry isn’t just for the Deron Williamses and Corey Liugets of the world.
“I think Coach Small is going to continue to develop great young golfers,” Langley said.
“The more players on Tour, the better recruits Coach is going to get, too,” Pieters said. “Hopefully, I can join them soon this summer.”
But the Illinois program is more than a pro golf factory. Before they leave for the land of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, the players succeed for their school.
They have won four consecutive Big Ten titles and reached the NCAA tournament five consecutive years. They have produced two of the last three NCAA medalists, with Langley winning in 2010 and Pieters earning the title last season. Guthrie won consecutive Big Ten titles.
“I think the perception of our program and the respect that our players are receiving and commanding in amateur golf, college golf and pro golf has changed the mind-set of people toward Illinois golf,” Small said.
Danville native Small had a fine playing career at Illinois. He helped the Illini to the 1988 Big Ten title, finishing runner-up to Stricker.
After college, Small spent the next decade-plus playing pro golf. He competed in majors and took his shot at the PGA Tour. In 2000, Ron Guenther called and Small decided to go home, with the idea of continuing his golf career on a limited basis.
“It’s important to keep my game the way it is,” Small said. “I want to still play in majors, I want to still compete, because that’s what I’m expecting these guys to do.”
Outsiders have noticed the work being done by Small. He has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year a record five times. Four times, he has won Midwest Regional Coach of the Year honors.
How has this happened? Ask the players, past and present, and they will point to the guy in charge.
“I think it does start with Coach Small, the mentality and the respect that he brings to the program,” Guthrie said. “Being able to recruit nationally.
The attitude he instills in all of his players. Everyone wants to go to the next level. Everyone I’ve played with has the same dream. We get together, work hard and have that blue-collar mentality. We try to get better every day and challenge ourselves. I don’t know if all programs have that level of desire to win and get better.”
“We just had great coaching,” Langley said.
No doubt, Small’s playing career had a big impact on his ability to coach. The players respect a guy who can whip them at any time.
“He’s still a world-class player,” Guthrie said.
“There are very few coaches across the country who have actual playing experience on the PGA Tour,” Langley said. “He taught us how to travel to tournaments. What to do during the week. Where to save energy. He taught us the best way to shoot low scores, an emphasis on short game and being a consistent ball striker.”
Small learned how to relate his own talents and shortcomings with those of his players. Success as an athlete doesn’t always mean success as a coach. For every Phil Jackson there are dozens of Magic Johnsons. Sure, he could play. But coaching didn’t fit.
“I coach these guys like I would want to be coached,” Small said. “And I coach them from a player’s perspective. I have lived it. I know what my struggles and tribulations were. I still regret things I could have done better. I try to translate those into these kids. I learned a lot about what the best players do, how they practice, what their mind-sets are, and I incorporate that.”
Small learned early in his coaching career that no two golfers are alike.
“Every kid is different,” Small said. “It’s got be fun. It’s got to be stimulating. It’s got to be productive. Too many times, coaches will format a team and a mind-set. It’s work. It’s a drag. It’s too structured. I think we do it as guys on Tour would do it. I think the kids grab ahold of that.”
Small’s plan with all of his players is to be honest. Sometimes brutally so.
“When you compliment them, it builds their confidence two-fold because they know you’re not bullcrapping them,” Small said. “They know you’re sincere.”
Pieters said Small treats the players like adults.
“He doesn’t make us do a lot of stuff practice-wise,” Pieters said. “He lets us take care of our own stuff. I really like the way he sets up practice.”
Small and his players don’t have to spend the winter months in the bowels of Huff Hall anymore. That facility issue was taken care of in 2007 when the Demirjian Golf Practice Facility opened. The $5.1 million building includes a 6,300-square-foot putting and chipping area, six heated hitting bays, a locker room and a golf club repair room.
“That’s the best, by far, of the indoor facilities,” Guthrie said. “It definitely helps getting people to Champaign. And it helps us get a lot better. If you get the ball up and down and make putts at Demirjian, you can make them anywhere. There’s a commitment from the school, coach and players that have made Illinois a success.”
“That’s such a great tool for us,” Langley said. “It’s where we spend so much of our time. I was there every day in the winter.”
Small wants more. There are plans to complete the facility with an outdoor teaching area. That would allow the Illini to get all their work done in one place.
Currently, if they want to hit at a driving range, they go to one of the local courses. And that’s where they go for practice rounds, too.
“This building is a Ferrari, but we’re only driving it in first gear now,” Small said. “Once the outdoor center gets built, we can let the wings out and go. Right now, we’re still using the courses in town to practice. UCLA has membership at Riviera. Georgia Tech has membership at East Lake. We don’t have that. For us to stay competitive, we need the outdoor center.”
“I think it will take us to the next level as a program,” Langley said.
Weather wasn’t an issue during the recruitment of Pieters. The climate in his native Belgium was similar to that of Champaign-Urbana.
The bigger issue for Pieters was distance from home. But he knew he wanted to play college golf in the United States, so he looked for comfort level with the coach and program. His choices came down to Illinois, Texas and Florida State.
“Coach Small talked to my family first and talked to my dad, which was important,” Pieters said. “Family is important to me.”
Pieters liked the family atmosphere he found at Illinois.
C-U’s weather made the decision to pick Illinois easier for freshman Charlie Danielson. The Osceola, Wis., product wasn’t interested in a year-round golf school. Illinois was the perfect match.
“That’s part of the charm of it, having the ability to take some time off, regroup and evaluate your game and go back at it hard in the spring,” Danielson said.
Like with Guthrie, Langley and Pieters, Small was a big selling point for Danielson.
“He went above all expectations,” Danielson said. “Having Coach Small here, having all the resources you need, it’s huge.”
Danielson has turned into a recruiter for Illinois.
“I tell them Coach Small is the best coach in the country,” Danielson said. “There’s something special here, the way we practice and the way we want to be the best. Once you’re here, you see what’s going on.
“I think a national title is in our reach. But we’ve got to keep working for it.”
With four guys on Tour and more to follow, Illinois gets mentioned a lot on the Golf Channel and during tournament coverage on NBC and CBS. Johnny Miller spent time during the Sony Open talking about Langley, who was in contention during the final round.
“I want that and it’s invaluable,” Small said. “That’s a big deal.”
The question is whether the bonus attention translates to improved Illinois recruiting.
“It is still tough to get the top, top amateurs to come here because of the weather,” Small said. “That’s something we are always going to fight if it’s between us and a Southern school. But I think as time goes on, they are seeing what our guys do here and how they progress, (so) I think we’re getting more and more credibility and respect. It’s a long process. It’s not going to happen just like that. I think the Northern kids are starting to see the value of it. The Southern kids and warm-weather kids, it’s still a leap for them to come here.”
Small talks often to his former players. But you won’t see him at their tournaments unless they ask.
“I’m not a stalker coach,” Small said. “I’m there if they want me there. If any of my guys calls me and say they need me, I’ll be there the next day. We prepare them for the next stage in their life. I run them through a lot of things. We practice making these guys uncomfortable. That’s how you become comfortable in uncomfortable situations. My job is to ween them off of me. You go out there ready to play, understand what it’s going to be like and what to expect. That’s been my biggest joy, to see Thomas Pieters win national as a sophomore. To not be scared.”
Pro golf looks like a lot of fun. Warm cities. Beautiful courses. Adoring fans.
There are other parts of the game that test the players. Endless travel. Struggling with their swings. Putting gone bad.
“Golf is so fleeting,” Small said. “These guys could make millions or they could lose their (Tour) cards. You never know. I remind of that. This game owes you nothing. You have to be so mentally tough to play it.”