Most of the attention in the golf world this weekend centered around the Ryder Cup.
Former Illini Steve Stricker was in the mix of the boisterous three-day event between golfers from the United States and Europe, with Stricker serving as the U.S. captain.
But the 54-year-old isn’t the only former Illinois men’s golfer who is continuing to make waves at golf’s highest level. Veteran Illini coach Mike Small has a steady stream of his former pupils continuing to test their game against some of the world’s best.
Nick Hardy played well enough on the Korn Ferry Tour this year to earn his PGA Tour card for the upcoming season. He played in his first full-fledged PGA event as a card-carrying member at the Fortinet Championship in Napa, Calif., from Sept. 16-19, finishing in a tie for 36th.
This comes after former Illini Thomas Pieters and Thomas Detry both represented Belgium at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in late July. The two are constant contenders on the European Tour, with the 28-year-old Detry recording three top-five finishes within the last three months.
The 29-year-old Pieters already has won four times on the European Tour and represented Europe at the 2016 Ryder Cup.
“With Pieters and Detry, they’ve got good, solid careers and are going in the right direction,” Small said. “They’re making a good living and establishing a brand for themselves.”
And then there’s Michael Feagles. The leader of last season’s Illini team, the 23-year-old Feagles has played in two PGA Tour events since his Illinois career ended in June, and he’s starting down the path that so many former Illini already have followed.
Small likes to see his former players — including Scott Langley, Luke Guthrie and Brian Campbell on the Korn Ferry Tour and D.A. Points on the PGA Tour — get a chance to keep playing in competitive environments past college.
“I’m more happy for them than I am for this program and our reputation,” Small said. “This is what they come to school for. They come to get an education, but they also want to play on the PGA Tour, so this is their dream.”
But Small is more than OK, too, keeping up with what his former players are doing even if they’re not trying to hit the right tee shot or constantly work on improving their putting.
“If they came to school and played golf for us but wanted to go be an engineer or an accountant or whatever, I’d feel the same way once they reached those dreams,” Small said. “Our program is going to be here whether we have guys on Tour or not.”
Away from watching his former Illini in the pros, Small is paying close attention to the ongoing renovations at Atkins Golf Club in southeast Urbana.
The former Stone Creek course is getting a multi-million dollar makeover, with plans to be operational by next spring.
“It’s in good hands with the architect,” Small said. “I was involved in the plans to renovate it and improve it. ... It’ll be cool to see the final product when it’s done.”
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.