Bob Asmussen: Golf builds on success

Bob Asmussen: Golf builds on success

Mike Small is having a good week. A very good week.

On Wednesday, his employer announced the creation of the Lauritsen/Wohlers Outdoor Practice Facility.

The $2 million project is expected to be dedicated in the fall and makes Illinois golf the envy of all college programs.

But you don’t win with buildings, you win with players.

That brings us to the second part of Small’s good week: the U.S. Open.

Five current or former Illini played in this year’s national championship. And two of them — Small’s college teammate Steve Stricker and recent Illinois grad Scott Langley — were in contention at the halfway point.

Small wasn’t able to watch much of the golf this weekend. He was too busy with recruiting, trying to bring the next big-time player to the Northern power.

Of course, Small takes pride in the PGA success of the ex-Illini. Just like John Groce celebrates Deron Williams and Dan Hartleb celebrates Tanner Roark.

“It helps us, but I want to stress the point that I’m happy for them,” Small said. “What I’m interested is in them doing it for themselves, doing it for their careers, doing it for all the hard work they put into it. That’s what is cool about it.”

Stricker, Langley, Luke Guthrie and D.A. Points aren’t the last of the Illinois golfers on Tour. Not if Small has a say about it.

Brian Campbell, who missed the cut at this weekend’s U.S. Open by 1 stroke, could be next. The senior-to-be has the game and the temperament to make a living playing golf.

Illinois’ golf reputation has been enhanced by a combination of geography and on-course success. Winning big isn’t supposed to happen in the Snowbelt. But Small has defied the odds.

“It’s unique,” Small said. “Jim Nantz always brings it up when I see him. He
says, ‘Man, you’re doing stuff people aren’t used to you doing.’ ”

With the Lauritsen/Wohlers building, there is no reason for a future dropoff. Combine the new place with the Demirjian Indoor Practice Facility and Illinois can compete facilitywise with the top schools in the conference and beyond.

“They are going to work together to form something really special,” Small said. “That’s why I’m excited about it. As of right now, we hit balls next to the public, which is fine. But most of the top programs have their own private places to practice. This is catching up. The quality of the facility is going to make us unique because it is going to be top shelf.”

Small didn’t snap his fingers and get the needed cash. It took years of effort.

No public money. No state money. No money that could be spent on basketball or football recruiting. It is a golf-driven venture, led by Small.

“That’s a positive thing,” Small said. “It speaks to the commitment of people for Illinois golf.”

After years of unprecedented success, Illinois golf has a chance to get even better. That national title that was oh-so-close a year ago could be around the corner. No pressure.

“It shows the top players in the country that they don’t have to go to Texas A&M or Austin or Gainesville to get the weather and the facilities,” Small said. “They can get it here in the Midwest. That’s the idea.”

There are no guarantees. But there is hope.

“We’re doing this to get better players here, better teams here,” Small said. “We want our players and our student-athletes to compete in the classroom and compete in golf as hard as they can.”

The coach will be right there with them. In a shiny new building.

“We’re holding up our end of the bargain that we’re going to give these guys every chance to get better,” Small said. “We’re going to work our tails off. I was a student-athlete once. and I played a lot harder when my coaches were working hard.

“I’m not going to sit in my office and eat Cheetos and drink Coke and let them do all the work. I’ve got to be working just as hard as them.”

Bob Asmussen writes three columns a week for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or via email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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