Tate: Small's golfers have eyes on title
Consistency and golf are usually strangers to each other.
Unlike pro tennis, where a handful of stars dominate the major events, golf produces a different winner, sometimes relatively unknown, almost every week.
Counting the team of Sean O’Hair and Kenny Perry in the PGA’s December finale, the 2012 men’s tour shows 40 winners in 50 events. Three winners in the four majors did not otherwise triumph: Ernie Els (British), Webb Simpson (U.S. Open) and Bubba Watson (Masters).
In early 2013, it is happening again with Adam Scott, a non-winner in 2012, capturing the Masters, and unlikely winners like Kevin Streelman, John Merrick and Michael Thompson popping up, not to mention the UI’s D.A. Points.
It is this incredible level of uncertainty that makes the Big Ten accomplishments of Mike Small’s Illini golfers so impressive. They are seeking their fifth straight conference title at French Lick, Ind. — their first without Luke Guthrie — beginning with 36 holes Friday and 18 each of the next two days. The Illini women will compete on an adjacent course on those dates.
“It is not a coincidence why we’ve been good with guys like Guthrie and (Scott) Langley on the team,” Small said. “This team is young and we’ve been in search of an identity. We’ve struggled with the lineup. We let the golf clubs do the talking, and the qualifiers have produced different players.
“We’ve won four times but we’ve also played some poor tournaments (12th among 16 entries in both the Desert Shootout and the April trip to Augusta, Ga.). We went about three years without losing to a Big Ten team anywhere. But Nebraska beat us in Arizona, and we’ve also finished behind Purdue and Iowa in tournaments.
“If you try to handicap golf, it’s impossible. For the first time, we won the Big Ten match play. That’s something our other champions couldn’t do. Match play is a whole different sport.”
In last weekend’s event at Purdue, a tournament delayed twice by frost, Illinois forged into the lead with two holes to go Sunday. Then, on the 230-yard 17th, a challenging par-3 with water, the five Illini squadmen shot 8 over par. The result dropped them from first to third behind co-champions Louisville and Iowa.
“We had some loose shots on the hole, showing a lack of confidence,” Small said. “Maybe we’ve been a little tight in some of these situations. Looking back, we’ve accomplished some things in the Big Ten and nationally that have caused these young guys to feel pressure as they try to hold up the previous regime.”
Small has settled on freshmen Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry and sophomores Brian Campbell and Alex Burge in the lineup this week along with NCAA champion Thomas Pieters. Both Pieters and Detry are multi-linguistic students from Belgium.
“In the fall, Danielson (Osceola, Wis.) was one of the top 70 players in the country, the third-rated freshman in America,” Small said. “With the growing expectations this spring, he has been frustrated with his game. He is a young man growing up. He did more in his first fall than Langley and Guthrie did.
“When Danielson is on, we’re a good team. I think he is turning things around. I asked him how it felt to be home when we went to Purdue last week, and he said he didn’t like it.”
Danielson’s spring average is 74.8, while Pieters leads at 72.2 and the other three are in the 73s.
Pieters will turn pro shortly after the NCAA championships, leaving the Illini without a senior or freshman who figures in next season.
“In terms of planning,” Small said, “2014 was projected as our year with Pieters returning and the young ones getting older. But when Pieters announced, it was too late to add a freshman (two have committed for the following year).”
It has been a whirlwind three years for the Belgian product, who arrived with language skills in English, Dutch, French and German, but admitted: “English was a big issue in the beginning here. I got a lot of help at the Irwin Academic Center. I’ll be 18 or 19 hours short of graduation (in sports management) plus an internship when I leave.”
In winning the NCAA title as a sophomore, he returned “with a target on my back. I felt the pressure and I did some swing changes. I led the NCAA in driving a year ago and that let me down in the fall and early spring.”
Small said, “This is Pieters’ time of year. But it’s different for him. He was relatively unknown when he won the NCAA title. He was playing from behind. Now, every magazine, every media report — here’s the national champion — and that’s a lot for a 20-year-old to handle.
“People don’t realize, as it was when Langley won the NCAA, how hard it is to come back. It’s special. There are no weight classes, no multiple events. There is one winner out of 300 teams and thousands of golfers.”
— Late April finds the UI among the PGA leaders in terms of player income, the quartet of Steve Stricker, Points, Guthrie and Langley already earning $4,241,251.
— Small received various job inquiries as “assumptions changed about me when Ron Guenther stepped down as athletic director.” The coach followed up just one at Arizona, saying: “It was a tempting offer. It might be easier to recruit and win an NCAA championship there but the challenge is greater here in the north and, if we win, so are the rewards. We’ve spent 80 percent of this spring as transient golfers.”
— Small’s playing schedule for the summer will revolve around his June trip to Oregon for the Professional National Championship, an event he was won three times. A top-25 finish there earns a spot in the PGA Championship. Said Small: “If I’m not successful there, I’ll just play four or five events including the Illinois Open and the Illinois PGA.”
— Small, now 47, worked out with a personal trainer this winter, saying: “In terms of my body, I’m trying to cheat the years. I didn’t putt or play very well last year.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at