The Illini contingent of Steve Stricker, D.A. Points, Mike Small and Luke Guthrie will be “co-favorites” in the PGA championship at Oak Hill this week.
Confused? Don’t be. The storyline for every major has become, according to the talking heads, a showdown of Tiger Woods vs. the field. And the four Illini are part of the field.
If Tiger falls short Sunday, it’ll make five seasons elapsed since he captured the U.S. Open in 2008 ... leaving him four short of the record 18 majors by Jack Nicklaus. That is the focus, even if the Tiger (prior to Friday’s eye-popping 61) was listed at 5-1.
For Small, coach of the Illini NCAA runner-up team, the quest must be viewed in more realistic terms. Having qualified by finishing in the Top 20 last month at the PGA Professional championship in Oregon, he has competed in just two tournaments since November. Many of this week’s contestants have played 20 or more.
Trying to excel in two competitive worlds (a coach first, a contestant second) is never easy. He has reached an age, 47, where his coaching prowess is widely acclaimed ... but his life as a competitor may be nearing a critical fork. Can he find enough time to remain competitive? Can he carry his game into the Senior Tour (50 and over)?
An intense schedule of personal workouts indicates he isn’t thinking about hanging it up.
“I’ve worked hard with a couple of guys who’ve put in time and effort with me,” Small said, “but golf-wise I need to catch up to my physical ability. I had a good tournament in Oregon, but then I didn’t play well in the Illinois Open. I’ve been asked a lot about the Senior Tour. For 10 years, I’ve been at the top of the people I’ve played against. It’s ironic that I’ve made more money playing than I did when I was on the PGA Tour.
“I’d like to dabble (in the Senior tour) when the time comes, but there are also a lot of things here I want to do ... to help more Luke Guthries and Scott Langleys to get on the tour. The competitive part will never leave me. But it’s no fun for me not to play well.”
Meet and greet
Small is going through a period that every aging golfer confronts. He plays as efficiently as he ever did ... sometimes. It is hard to get used to the inconsistencies.
“I need to adjust my attitude a little bit,” he said. “I’m not getting as much enjoyment out of playing well compared to the disappointment I feel when I play bad ... if that makes sense. It should be an even trade-off, but it hasn’t been in recent years.”
Work and travel contribute to mental fatigue.
“My body feels it. I just spent three days recruiting in Washington, D.C., and just standing and walking gets me,” he said. “If I played golf every day, I’d be less tired. It is a weird dynamic.”
When Thursday arrives, he’ll try to put all doubts behind. The ultimate optimist with his players, he’s fighting it internally with his game.
“First of all, it’s fun to be a part of this, to be a part of the Illini contingent,” Small said. “Strick and D.A. have been stalwarts in majors for a while, and I’ve played in a number of PGAs in a row, which is kind of neat. And here is Luke, who I was coaching a little over a year ago.
“It’s a week where I get to hang out with top players, ask questions and learn what’s new in the game. I’ll meet (Nicolas) Colsaerts, the Belgium star, which is important because of Thomas and Thomas (Pieters and Detry) on our team. I’ll make a point of speaking to him. There are more players coming up that (Belgium) pipeline.”
Hitting it big
Small has played in roughly 75 PGA events over the years, this marking his 12th major. Take his word that majors are different.
“The size of the venues, the toughness of the course, the media, the crowd, the intensity,” Small said. “When the fans come, the vibe is different. Majors are set up to find the best players in the world, and they don’t want to see low scores. I’ve played OK in some majors but not real good on weekends.”
In the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol, Small shot 74-68 to advance, but he skied to 80 in 100-degree temperature on Saturday before a closing 73.
“Sometime before I quit, I want to play real good on a weekend,” he said. “I don’t know if that will happen, but this week I get another chance. I have made three cuts and missed a couple by a shot. My best was Southern Hills in 2007 when I got recognized with Tiger.”
The signed picture of Woods alongside Small is on his office wall.
Further analyzing his game, Small said:
“I’ve been hitting it farther than I ever have. My club speed with the driver is upwards of 114 to 115 miles per hour. That’s above average for the tour. When I played a lot a couple of years ago, I was ranked in the upper 25 percent. Accuracy could be better. But that comes with practice. My short game has been my stalwart, and it isn’t as strong lately. I have to deal with that. Puttingwise, I’m streaky. When I’m on, I’m on. I go through what everybody else goes through, only at a different level. Some days you aren’t trying particularly hard and you do great. And some days you’re trying your hardest and you struggle.
“Outwardly it may look OK but inwardly I can be mean to myself. I need to improve on that. I need to practice what I teach. But competition keeps me going. When I’m playing a tour event or even a smaller event, I feel alive. You don’t know what’s next. A few years ago at Atlanta, I had a 5-footer to make a major. Talk about nerves. You may be going home or you can make $15 or $20 thousand or more. I loved that feeling. That’s why I play. I’m going out Thursday and I could shoot 65 or 85. You never know. My game is that way. I’m good enough where I could shoot under par in a major, but if I fret and don’t play to my strengths, I’ll shoot 80.
“It is an inner challenge. I need better discipline, the ability to sequester the different parts of my life and enjoy the ride. What I’ve discovered over the years is that it’s easier to coach than it is to play at this level. To bark orders and use your experience is a lot easier than actually doing it.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.