Asmussen: Golfers eye six in a row
Last year, they earned one for the thumb. This time, the Illinois golf team wants to start filling the second hand.
Mike Small’s Illini travel to French Lick, Ind., for the Big Ten tournament this weekend. The five-time defending champions are heavy favorites to win a sixth in a row.
“Every year is iffy, but we seem to come through,” Small said after Tuesday’s practice with his team. “Hopefully, we’ll show up and all play well this weekend.
“We have a chance. It’s not a pipe dream. We’re the No. 1 seed going in. The odds say that we have a chance. The odds say that we should be in there at the end.”
Not that Small is taking anything for granted. He has seen upsets too often, in every sport.
“We have to have a team effort,” Small said. “Our depth has been our asset over the years. We need to have five guys play solid golf. It doesn’t have to be great golf, but it has to be solid golf.
“The Big Ten has some good teams. There is good talent we’ve got to face.”
Being the favorite is a big change for Small’s Illini. When he first arrived at the school in 2001 the team was picked to finish last. The team finished 10th.
“I’ve been at the bottom,” Small said.
The coach much prefers being the favorite over the way it used to be. The Illini are the team everybody else in the Big Ten points to.
“I would rather be that than always being the hunter,” Small said. “I like being the top dog. Hopefully, we can keep that going. There is different pressure.
“It means we are doing something right if we are always the favorite.”
Small has built the Illinois program, not just at the conference level, but nationally.
The goal has always been to build a program that can win at a high level every year, not just once every three or four seasons. Mission accomplished. The Illini have shown consistency over time, which to Small is the definition of success.
The Illinois reputation is so strong that Small was one of five coaches invited to participate in a Golf Channel teleconference earlier this week previewing the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Illinois is in good company, joining UCLA, Southern Cal, Texas and Texas A&M with a streak of appearances in the NCAA tournament.
“This year, when they have a conference call and they can choose any coach to be a part of it, they choose Stanford, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State, Alabama and Illinois. That’s a compliment to our guys in the program,” Small said.
Not that he will ever brag on himself, but Small deserves a ton of credit. Note to Mike Thomas: Do what you can to keep the guy around.
To prepare for the upcoming stretch, Small loaded up the schedule. The Illini have had a string of matches against Top 20 teams.
Want to beat the best? You need to play the best.
These days, that includes Illinois.
The Illini are led by Thomas Detry.
“He’s played the steadiest,” Small said.
The Big Ten tournament is held at the Pete Dye-designed course at the French Lick Resort. It is “tough and fair,” Small said. “If you play well, you will score well. If you hit some errant shots and you hit some greens in the wrong spots, you will be penalized.”
The weather could impact the tournament. Cooler temperatures are predicted.
“We’re rooting for the worst weather we can get,“ Small said. “We do better in bad weather. We’re mudders.”
Small has been working on his own game, too. Next week, he will play in a U.S. Open qualifier in Indianapolis.
“My game is coming along a little bit,” Small said. “I’m optimistic about it.”
Bob Asmussen writes Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No Small feat
Here is how Illinois has finished in the Big Ten tournament during Mike Small’s tenure: