Tate: Small a big-time fundraiser
They’ll begin seeding in early August. Maybe next week.
And then, right before your eyes alongside St. Mary’s Road and Wright Street will rise a gloriously green, 24-acre golf practice center inspired by Augusta National Golf Club.
The $2 million layout, backed by a $3.5 million endowment, is called the Lauritsen/Wohlers facility and is the latest example of philanthropy that has raced side by side with the extraordinary success of Mike Small’s Illini team.
It is the nature of golf that its “athletes” can enjoy 18 holes long after they’ve laid down their tennis rackets and baseball bats. And these aging aficionados can often be found in corporate boardrooms and high offices.
Barack Obama is not the first president to play extensively. With the overall popularity of golf slipping — too many courses, upkeep too expensive — it is still the driving force for country clubs, where wealth abounds.
Small’s large role
The UI has squadrons of fundraisers from the Foundation and throughout the colleges, and Mike Thomas leads a busy athletic group contacting potential donors. But in golf, Small is not only the point man but the driving force.
“It’s a team effort,” the coach said. But, truth is, Small has a personal relationship with every major donor, not the least of whom is his former Illini teammate, Steve Stricker. These two designed the new layout.
“It is great to see the excitement people see around the program, and the vision we all have for men’s golf,” Small said. “We were able to build the J.D. Demirjian Indoor Facility without the kind of success we’ve had lately, and now we’ve taken it to a new level. Our donors share our desire and enthusiasm to make this a special place for our student-athletes.”
Jim Lauritsen is a 1958 UI graduate and a member of the Chicago Board of Trade. He and his wife, Kay, are longtime donors who also helped build the Ubben Basketball Complex. Albert Wohlers is a 1939 UI graduate who built a successful insurance company and was granted naming rights for Wohlers Hall in the UI College of Business.
Adding to their financial support are Stricker, Don Edwards, Brent Wadsworth, Art Wyatt and Steve Wymer. Wadsworth’s golf company is handling construction, and Wymer created the endowment aspect. Wyatt, a former Illini golfer now residing in Florida, has lived an adult life marked with philanthropic acts.
An ‘addicting’ job
When Ron Guenther picked Small off the PGA Tour, the new coach had no idea what he was wading into.
“No idea,” Small said with a smile. “But shortly thereafter, when I saw where college golf was heading, when I saw what Duke and Wake Forest and Texas had, I knew it was a bigger deal than just coaching.
“This would be the most fun job in the world if it was just golf. But it’s not. This has so many tentacles, so many layers of things I have to do that aren’t related to coaching. It blows your mind. This job is more overwhelming than I ever imagined. And it’s addicting.
“Lots of coaches have downtime in the summer. That’s when I’m humping my butt ... fundraising, scouting, recruiting, playing. But all these things contribute to the success of the program.”
Money wasn’t a driving force in bringing Small back to his alma mater. He began with a $50,000 contract, which was conceivably less than he might have made on the PGA Tour.
“This was something I wanted to do,” he said. “I enjoy college golf, and Illinois has always meant a lot to me and my family. To tell the truth, I didn’t understand what went with it.”
Mind on the project
Small remains competitive on the course, but his workload is affecting his performance. He failed this past week to win his fifth Illinois Open, shooting a shaky 80 on the final day at Glenview. That should be no surprise. Small estimates he’s spending four hours a day studying and making adjustments to the new practice center.
“We’ve changed the original plans several times,” Small said. “It’s not like a building. There are no specs. You kind of carve it through with creativity and imagination.”
The centerpiece is a huge, 13,000-square-foot putting green next to the indoor facility. Another monstrous, USGA-certified green sits on the southwest side for putting, chipping and target practice. Altogether, there are four greens for putting and four as targets.
The green in back has huge bunkers and elevation changes, the kind Small says “you don’t see in Champaign-Urbana.”
A 25,000-square-foot tee box sits next to Demirjian, and tee boxes encircle the entire facility.
“These allow us to hit balls in any direction toward any target. We have tees hitting downhill, uphill, into the wind, downwind, any way you want. You can take your bag of balls, drop them anywhere in the 24 acres and have unique shots into these greens,” Small said.
“Our two main driving fairways heading east off of Demirjian allow us to practice fades, draws and any kind of tee shots.”
Funding a ‘magnet’
Small’s primary fundraiser has taken place at Olympia Fields. He calls that a “home run.”
This year he’s planning a “home event” Sept. 2 at Stone Creek. It’ll be a 72-player outing — first come, first served at $175 per — and will also feature nine Illini squadmen and five current Illini pros, including Stricker.
“We don’t have a home event. People follow us in the news,” Small said. “We need to put a face with a name and at the same time thank Stone Creek for being such a good partner. We’ll fit in our nine squad members so that each group has a player for nine holes.
“We’ll do lunch, a clinic and we’ll watch the guys hit. This will allow the golfers to interact with our players, and we welcome anyone to come out. It’ll be cool to see five PGA Tour players coming back to participate.
“Stricker has helped this program more than anyone knows. He doesn’t want the attention. Some have criticized his Wisconsin connection, but his wife is from there and his kids are Badger fans. Still, he is an Illinois golf fan. He gave a substantial amount (six figures) to the outdoor center.”
Pointing to the new center from his cart, Small said: “This has been a lot of work. It took seven years to get the indoor facility, and it has taken seven years to complete the outdoor center. By the look and the design, this will transform the look of this side of the campus. It’ll be a magnet.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.