PGA TOUR CHAMPIONS INSIDER
Small making big noise on PGA TOUR Champions
July 18, 2018
By Bob McClellan, PGATOUR.COM
- July 18, 2018
- Steve Stricker and Mike Small were teammates on the Illinois golf team and remain close friends. (Darren Carroll/Getty Images)
University of Illinois men’s golf coach Mike Small has turned PGA TOUR Champions into a very nice side hustle.
The longtime Illini head man finished tied for 10th at the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS Championship over the weekend at Exmoor Country Club outside Chicago, earning him $67,200, his biggest payday in 82 total starts on the PGA TOUR (72) and PGA TOUR Champions (10).
Small, an Illinois alum and a collegiate teammate of Steve Stricker, was making his fourth start on PGA TOUR Champions this year thanks to sponsor’s exemptions. He tied for 24th at the Cologuard Classic, tied for ninth at the Principal Charity Classic and tied for 10th at the American Family Insurance Championship, which earned him entry into the next co-sponsored event on the schedule, the 3M Championship in Minnesota.
Small earned his way into the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS because of his spot on the money list. His year-to-date earnings are $171,095, which ranks 59th in the Schwab Cup standings. The top 72 players on the money list advance to the Schwab Cup playoffs, and Small said he’d love nothing more than to continue moonlighting as a player.
“I think it would be awesome,” Small, 52, said while sipping on a warm McDonald’s unsweet tea in which the fast-food chain had forgotten to put ice. “If I can sneak into the playoffs … it’s after our fall schedule, and I think our guys would want me to play. Not a lot of non-exempt players make it into the Schwab Cup Playoffs.”
Small knows that means he’ll have to play well at the 3M. Another top 10 there would get him another start, too, and/or maybe he can pick up another sponsor’s exemption.
Make no mistake: The list of Small’s accomplishments as a player are rather large. He won twice on the Web.com Tour in 1997 and finished in the top 15 on the money list, making him fully exempt on the PGA TOUR in 1998.
He has won the PGA Professional National Championship three times. He has won a record 12 Illinois PGA Championships. He has won the Illinois Open four times.
Small didn’t play well enough in 1998 to keep his PGA TOUR card. He was frustrated and said he even was getting burned out on golf. He had reached a point where he wasn’t certain what he wanted to do with the game in the future when he found out about the vacant coaching position at his alma mater.
“I needed something else in my life,” Small said. “I had lost my card, and my life was narrow and shallow. I wanted to do something different.
“I knew it was the correct choice lto take the job [at Illinois] when I went and finished in the top 10 at the Web.com Tour event in Canada which got me into the next 20 events the week after I took the job. I played in only one of them. I knew it was the right path because I had no desire to play, just to build the program.”
The Illinois men’s golf program was Nowheresville in 2000, a Big Ten bottom feeder. The Illini offered Small $50,000 a year, and they said it was fine for him to continue to play as often as he could fit it around his coaching duties.
Small, then 34, went about building a program.
“My reputation in coaching is I’m a good player,” Small said. “It was our niche early on. There wasn’t much to talk about in Champaign. I lost my card, but I was still playing. It was and is very important. This keeps it going, and it feeds off itself. I also think I coach better because of playing.
“I can relate to what kids are going through. I experienced things this week [at the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERs] that they experience in college golf -- getting the lead, trying to hold the lead, expectations, nervousness. I hit good shots, bad shots, made mental errors. Now I can spot things quicker with my players. It helps me on the course with them. I’m not just barking orders. I’m more in touch with their feelings because I’m going through the same things.”
Small has built a powerhouse at Illinois. It has become, in the past 18 years, one of the premier programs in the country. The Illini have made it to the NCAA Championship for 11 consecutive years. They have produced two individual national champions. They have won the Big Ten title nine of the past 10 years and were runner-up the other year.
In turn, the school stepped up two years ago and made Small the highest-paid golf coach in the nation. He signed a six-year extension in 2016 worth in excess of $2 million.
“I have a great job. They made a statement to me that they want me, and they still want me to play,” Small said. “I get to stay young with the kids, and I get to play and supplement my income and stay competitive.”
Because of his coaching salary, Small says even if he were to win a PGA TOUR Champions event he wouldn’t join the tour full time. Yes, it would be incredibly satisfying, he admitted. But Small quickly will tell anyone asking that he’s a coach first and player second.
Small isn’t starstruck playing on PGA TOUR Champions because a lot of the guys he’s playing with were guys he was grinding with in the 1990s. He did admit it was “kind of cool” that he had played several rounds this year with two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, but he tries to take away something as a coach from everyone with whom he plays.
“I watch how they go about their business,” Small said. “I’m watching their strategy. The good ones make it simple, repetitive.
“Other coaches don’t have this opportunity. I continue to learn and see how different players fit the game to their body and personality. It helps me formulate my guys.”
The day after the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS wrapped, Small was driving to Indianapolis to board a plane for the U.S. Junior Amateur in Springfield, New Jersey. He is, after all, a coach first. And recruiting never stops.