18 Holes with … Mike Small

Illinois golf coach has carved out a nice living as a player too

Poor Mike Small. He thought he'd driven up from Illini territory to play a casual round of golf. But his morning began with a plea from someone who putts as if he's wearing oven mitts.

Me.

"What do you think about when you're putting?" Small asked on the practice green at Royal Melbourne, a sweet Greg Norman design in Long Grove.

I launched into something about the forward press and keeping my head down throughout the stroke and …

"All you should be thinking about is trying to get the ball into the little hole," Small said. "When you're throwing darts or shooting hoops, do you think about keeping your elbow down? How's putting any different? Be an athlete, dude."

That's it? What about pendulum and grip pressure and judging break and all those other hundreds of terms that haunt guys like me?

Small acknowledged the importance of good fundamentals — squaring up the face, rocking with the shoulders, etc.

Beyond that, Small wants his Illinois golfers to "visualize what the ball will do. And be confident. Some guys on my team are more confident with the ladies than on the greens."

That got me thinking about golf pickup lines. Three-putt here often?

I knew it would be foolish to ignore Small's advice.

Two years ago he set the course record at Olympia Fields South with a 63 to win the Illinois PGA Championship for the eighth consecutive time. The 46-year-old has won three PGA Professional National Championships, beating the country's finest teacher/players, and completed the first three rounds of last year's PGA Championship in 1 over par. Even after a Sunday 78, he beat the likes of Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and PGA Tour stars Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Ernie Els.

Small was an All-Big Ten golfer at Illinois but had some doubts he'd be able to make a comfortable living on tour. He tied for second in the 1988 Big Ten tournament — but finished 14 shots behind his best buddy, Steve Stricker.

After years of winning minitour events — Hello, Cleveland Open — but missing PGA Tour cuts, Small let Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther talk him into coaching.

Think that decision paid off? Small now makes six figures a year from playing, and his team is a Big Ten beast, having won four straight conference titles. It will compete in the NCAA tournament's Norman, Okla., regional from Thursday to Saturday.

His team has only six golfers, the perfect number.

"Five travel, and the one at home has no one to complain to," Small joked.

Small, the coach, does not morph into Small, the player, until the Illini season ends. Still, it was a surprise that through seven holes at Royal Melbourne, Small was 3 over, only one shot better than me.

"I can't kick it in!" he exclaimed after missing a short birdie putt.

I could relate. My putting generally ranges from lousy to quite lousy, and Small immediately saw why.

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