Big mo­ment

Illi­nois coach Small just 3 back mid­way thru ma­jor tour­ney

Chicago Tribune - - CHICAGO SPORTS - Steve Reaven is a free­lance re­porter for Pi­o­neer Press. By Steve Reaven

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.”

JOSE M. OS­O­RIO/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Illi­nois golf coach and Aurora na­tive Mike Small had one of the big­gest gal­leries Fri­day at Ex­moor C.C.

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