Small proud of former Illini
URBANA — Quick, now: Which college golf program had the most former players compete in the 2013 U.S. Open?
If you guessed Illinois, you weren’t far off.
Only 10-time NCAA champion Oklahoma State had more alumni (five) in the field at the year’s second major championship than the Illini.
Led by veteran Steve Stricker, who tied for eighth place, four ex-Illini represented their alma mater last month at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia.
This week, Illinois will do itself one better when the PGA Tour visits Silvis in western Illinois. For the second time in three years, five golfers with Orange and Blue backgrounds and apparel are entered in the John Deere Classic.
“That’s what we tried to set out to do 12, 13 years ago — to build something like this,” Illini coach Mike Small said. “As I’ve said repeatedly, I think when you build a program, you need a presence on the professional tours, and we’re starting to build that.”
Three of the five former Illini who’ll play at TPC Deere Run — Luke Guthrie, Scott Langley and Joe Affrunti — developed their game under Small en route to joining Stricker and D.A. Points on the tour.
Unlike Stricker, Points and former full-time pro Small himself — all of whom spent years in developmental tours before making it to the big time — the newest Illini pros wasted little time earning their PGA Tour cards. Langley had his within 11/2 years of his last event for the UI in 2011; Guthrie, a 2012 grad, within about six months.
“It took me seven years to get my PGA Tour card,” Small said. “It took Joe about the same time, and Stricker five years. That shows how advanced they really are.
“It shows we’re doing something right, helping them prepare for that next level. (It shows) that they’re not intimidated and scared, and are prepared to play.”
The growing impact of Illini golf on the PGA Tour is evident in the Rivals Cup school rankings. The rankings are based on combined FedExCup player points per school. With Points and Stricker each in the top 20 and Guthrie 59th, Illinois is No. 7 entering the John Deere Classic. On a list loaded with traditional powers, Small’s program is one of the few cold-weather schools — and the only Big Ten representative — in the Rivals Cup Top 25.
“For us to be in with all those schools ... is an accomplishment,” Small said.
The Illini’s pro pipeline is just one of many selling points their coach has at his disposal when he recruits these days.
In fact, as Small approaches the start of his 14th season as a head coach at his alma mater, the 1988 graduate seemingly has more to offer than ever before when making his case to attend Illinois, including:
— Top-five team finishes at the NCAA Championships two of the past three years;
— Two NCAA individual champions in the last four years;
— Five consecutive Big Ten team titles;
— Three Big Ten Players of the Year in the last four years;
— Three Big Ten medalists in the last three years;
— And, if Small isn’t too modest, he can point out that the current Illini coach is working on a streak of five consecutive Big Ten Coach of the Year awards. Or that he’s still got game, too, as evidenced by the fact that Small will compete in his ninth PGA Championships next month.
“So we’re building a body of work,” he said. “I think people look at (the program) differently than they did five years ago, and definitely 10 years ago.”
The UI coach will have to wait a while, however, to see just how much of an impact his team’s second-place finish in the 2013 NCAAs will have on recruiting. By the time his fifth-seeded Illini marched to the national title match, Small already had lined up his three-member Class of 2014 recruiting group.
“We’re recruiting the 2015 class now with our (current) record, so we’ll know in a year and a half or two years whether that pays off,” Small said. “And we’re looking at some national kids, some international kids, but we’re still evaluating them.”
Small still regards Illinois’ cold-weather location as a significant recruiting hurdle — at least with top prospects from Sun Belt and West Coast areas. All the same, he’s managed to build — and, more importantly, sustain — a nationally competitive program.
“The weather still fights us, but we have an atmosphere and record now and a culture where we think kids will thrive, so we try to get that message to them,” Small said.
The PGA Tour — and the television coverage that accompanies it — amplifies that message. Any recruit who looks in on the John Deere Classic this week no doubt will be reminded by the announcers that Stricker won three straight titles there before tying for fifth place last year. The player who shared fifth with Stricker in 2012? Luke Guthrie, who was entered on a sponsor’s exemption.
Small, who was part of the Illini’s 2011 John Deere contingent, will miss Thursday’s opening round as he conducts the final day of his UI youth golf camp. But he’ll be in Silvis on Friday for Illini Day, meeting and greeting fans, and being a fan himself of the players in Orange and Blue.
“Catch up with all of them and wish them luck and watch a little bit,” Small said.
Then, the UI coach will head back home to watch his sons Wyatt and Will compete Saturday in a youth tennis tournament in Bloomington. Sunday is spoken for, too, with the Small family headed to DeKalb to attend a jazz band competition, an event of particular interest to budding trumpet player Will.
“He’s very good,” Dad said. “I’m very proud of him for that. That’s something I wish I could do.”
Small admits his attention might be a bit divided this weekend, however. Expect the UI coach to bring along a smartphone to check in on how former teammate Stricker and the rest of the ex-Illini are faring at TPC Deere Run.
“Definitely, I will,” he said.
Five former Illini tee off Thursday at the John Deere Classic. Here’s the scoop:
TEE TIME FORMER ILLINI HOLE NOTABLE PLAYING PARTNER
7:10 a.m. Scott Langley 10th hole Nick O’Hern: Skinny Australian has three top-25 finishes this season
7:30 a.m. Steve Stricker 10th hole Zach Johnson: Defending champ, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native, has as many fans as Stricker at course
7:40 a.m. D.A. Points 10th hole Keegan Bradley: Former PGA champ — and big-time Boston fan — not happy about Doc Rivers leaving
8:10 a.m. Luke Guthrie 10th hole Jordan Spieth: Having a better rookie season than Guthrie, finishing in the top 10 five times
9 a.m. Joe Affrunti First hole Patrick Rodgers: Indy native and Stanford star won the Fighting Illini Invitational in May at Olympia Fields