CHAMPAIGN — Mike Small first heard about Steve Stricker more than three decades ago.
Small had just completed his freshman season for the Illinois men’s golf team, with the Illini, well, far away from the Big Ten power they are now. Illinois had finished 10th at the Big Ten championships to conclude the 1984-85 season when the Big Ten had just 10 members.
Enter Stricker, an up-and-coming freshman for coach Ed Beard’s team coming to Champaign from Edgerton, Wis.
“I remember hearing all these things about him,” Small told me Wednesday morning. “Junior golf wasn’t as pronounced back then, but we had heard how good a player he was. Coach told us how good a player he was. When he showed up, he was very unassuming and just normal. But he could sure flat out play.”
Stricker lived up to the hype during his career at Illinois that ended with him winning three Big Ten medalist honors. He and Small helped the program win the 1988 Big Ten title, the first for the Illini since 1941.
All of those accomplishments when Stricker called Champaign-Urbana home during his formative college years seem to pale in comparison to what Stricker has done in the subsequent years as a professional on both the PGA Tour (12 wins) and Champions Tour (seven wins).
And pale dramatically to what the 54-year-old Stricker is facing this weekend. He’s essentially Captain America, serving as the United States team captain for the three-day Ryder Cup extravaganza that begins Friday and concludes Sunday at Whistling Straits in Sheboygan, Wis.
“It’s been the greatest honor of my career to represent the United States as Ryder Cup captain,” Stricker wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday. “I can’t wait to get started on Friday and watch this special group of players compete in front of my fellow Wisconsinites.”
All eyes on him
Stricker will hear about every decision, every pairing and every outcome the U.S. experiences this weekend in its attempt to win the Ryder Cup away from Europe for the first time since the 2016 event in Chaska, Minn. The U.S. holds an all-time lead of 26-14 on Europe, but the Europeans have won seven of the nine Ryder Cups this century.
Small knows what it’s like to coach golfers. He’s done it at a high level at Illinois since 2000, leading the Illini to 11 of the last 12 Big Ten championships and turned the program into a perennial power poised to make a run at the NCAA Championships.
But he’s tried to avoid adding on to the pressure and expectations Stricker will face this weekend as players like Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Collin Morikawa and others on the 12-man U.S. roster determine how Stricker’s captaincy role will be viewed for the record books.
“I’ve purposely let him be the last three to four months,” Small said. “I think people in any line of work almost appreciate their friends more when they’re not calling and pestering them for small talk. There’s nothing worse for a coach during the season, or for Strick leading up to this, than making small talk. I think he appreciates that. We texted last week letting him know we’re thinking of him and how the team was going. I know he appreciated it.”
Small appreciates the moment Stricker will experience this weekend. Having attended the 2016 Ryder Cup when former Illini Thomas Pieters played for Europe at Hazeltine National Golf Club, the whirlwind of emotions that’ll happen at Whistling Straits is unlike any seen in the sport.
“It is like a football game,” Small said. “The players get into it, which is different, because usually the players try to stay even-keeled when they play and try to stay level. Emotionally, they’re all over the place at this.”
Small can relate to this, albeit on a much smaller scale he freely admits.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play on five PGA Cup teams, which pits the PGA professionals against the European professionals,” Small said. “We get probably 300 people to come out and watch. I’m as nervous as I’ve ever been playing in that than all of the majors I’ve played in. I cannot imagine the intensity and nerves they feel playing in the Ryder Cup.”
Small and his Illinois program is no stranger to the match play format that’ll be in vogue this weekend at the Ryder Cup. It’s how the NCAA Championships determine the national champion.
Playing two hours north of Champaign at the 2017 NCAA Championships at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Small said his Illini fed off the pro-Illinois crowd to beat Southern Cal in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual national champion Oklahoma in the semifinals.
“The crowd was right there on us on the final hole. It was exciting, and it definitely helped us beat USC,” Small said. “It helped our guys get fired up based on the momentum from the crowd. Take that and times it by 1,000, and that’s the Ryder Cup.”
Stricker is familiar with the Ryder Cup, having played on U.S. teams in 2008, 2010 and 2012. But he won’t get to use his clubs or sink a meaningful putt this weekend.
“His biggest thing will be the pairings and team chemistry, kind of like what a college golf coach does,” Small said. “He’s not going to coach up the pros. He’s just going to let them go play. He’ll do a great job of creating the culture that’s needed to thrive.”
Small won’t attend the Ryder Cup this year, but he’ll tune in and stay updated on what his former college teammate is up to. No matter what transpires on the course in Wisconsin, it won’t change the relationship he’s built with Stricker throughout the years, which all started on the UI campus.
It’s a friendship first cultivated by golf, but one that has evolved through the years.
“Our relationship has grown,” Small said. “We stayed with each other on the road when we played in college, but we never roomed together on campus. We were in each other’s weddings and with professional golf, he was a lot quicker to the Tour than I was, but we spent time together out there. It’s been a relationship with a lot of respect for each other. When we talk, we don’t talk golf at all.”
They’ll catch up on their respective families. Relive some memories from their playing days. Stay in touch about the current state of the Illini golf program Small has successfully guided since 2000. And Illinois fans can thank Stricker, too, for the sustained success the program has had with Small at the helm.
“I consulted with him before I took the job and what he thought about it because I was still playing at the time. I had lost my PGA Tour card, and I was wanting to get it back, but he thought I’d be good at coaching,” Small said. “When I came back, he jumped in and even when he wasn’t at the top of his game for a couple years there, he still came back to help us and support us. He’s been a big help and a big supporter of ours since I’ve been here.”
The sentiment is true for how Small views his good friend in his new, highly visible role this weekend as the U.S. captain.
“It’s cool as heck,” Small said with a laugh. “It’s probably the most decorated position in golf. It says what kind of person you are. Not everybody gets that title. You’ve got to be liked, respected, admired, revered, to have that position. It’s just not given to anybody.”