Illinois coach Small just 3 back midway thru major tourney
In a sense, Mike Small is on vacation.
The University of Illinois golf coach doesn’t have as many official duties over the summer, which gives him time to recharge and play a few tournaments on the PGA Tour Champions, the 50-and-over circuit.
And Small, 52, is in contention for a major title. At 8 under, he’s three strokes behind leader Scott Parel and tied for 11th after two rounds of the Constellation Senior Players Championship at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park.
Small shot 1-under 71 on Friday, a day after he fired a first-round 65 and shared the first-round lead with Kenny Perry.
Parel shot a 66 and stands at 11 under, one stroke better than Jeff Maggert (68) and Brandt Jobe (67). Seven golfers, including three-time champion Bernhard Langer (67), defending champion Scott McCarron (68), Vijay Singh (67) and Perry (70), were two strokes back.
“I felt better (Friday) than I did (Thursday), birdied the first two holes and then I just hit a little lull,” Small said. “I righted the ship coming in, so that felt better. I’m going to have to shoot low this weekend.”
That Small is even in the field at Exmoor is no small feat. This is only his fourth event on tour this year, and he needed sponsor’s exemptions to get into the first three. He qualified by way of the $103,895 he has earned in those tournaments, good for 68th on the money list.
“I’m proud of how I got in here,” he said. “I earned it.”
Small, who signed a six-year extension with Illinois in 2016, also has a reputation as one of the nation’s top college coaches. He has built a national powerhouse in Champaign — the Illini have competed in the NCAA championships 11 years in a row.
But because of his coaching responsibilities, he has played only a few competitive rounds since November. He said it’s hard to separate his playing from his coaching.
“That’s my biggest problem: I have to leave the coach in me behind,” Small said. “I tend to evaluate every shot. I get too critical and I need to move on to the next shot better.”
That’s where his caddie, Naperville’s Jim Ambrose, lends a hand. Ambrose said Small is an ultracompetitive golfer.
“He’s all business out there. He’s not here to lose,” Ambrose said. “He’s like a thoroughbred: Run as hard as you can and finish first.”
That’s Small’s motto when recruiting too. The Aurora native is competing for a major title but also trying to sell the nation’s best high school golfers on his program.
“What’s a better conversation piece to recruits than this?” Small said. “This helps the program.”
In a field featuring seven World Golf Hall of Famers, Small’s gallery was among the largest on Friday, with plenty of fans donning orange and blue caps and shirts following his every shot. His wife, Ann, was part of that group.
Small said he’ll compete on tour at the 3M Championship in Minneapolis in August, as well as the Illinois Open and the Illinois PGA Championship.
And he’ll keep playing until he’s told he can’t.
“If I still have fun doing it and I still get nervous ... that’s good,” Small said. “That’s something I don’t get to feel at my normal job. I’ve had a heck of a run. Golf’s been very good to me.”
Illinois golf coach and Aurora native Mike Small had one of the biggest galleries Friday at Exmoor C.C.