Illinois men's golf coach Mike Small teaching himself, players

By Ryan Wilson

Illinois men’s golf head coach Mike Small turns 50 in March, but he still has some competitive gas in his tank. Not only for his golf career, but for everything he’s involved in.

“He’s sneaky good at about everything,” assistant coach Zach Barlow said. “You don’t want to take him on in too many things.”

In addition to golf, Small can play ping pong and basketball to keep his competitive edge.

“I just think overall, he misses competing to a point,” Barlow said. “He competes in everything he does.”

Small may be talented in multiple sports, but golf — while he can play it — will be his main focus. He continues to chase majors and personal goals. In November he competed in the Champions Tour Qualifying School, finishing tied for 46th.

He occasionally practices at Illinois’ Demeirjian Golf Practice Facility in the morning.

“He seems pretty motivated to not only win a National Championship (with Illinois’ golf team), but to continue to play at a high level,” Barlow said.

But even then, Barlow said he thinks Small’s professional golf days may be numbered.

Learning from a pro

While Small is learning how to better his golf game, the Illinois golfers are learning from his successes and failures along the way.

“They know that when he talks about his experience, they can believe him, because he’s been there,” Barlow said.

Small has coached at Illinois for 14 years and has played professionally for nearly two decades. Barlow, who played golf at Illinois from 2006-2010, said Small’s resume was a key factor in which college to attend. Barlow then played professionally for four years before returning to the Illini to fulfill one of his long-time desires: coaching.

The team won a school-record eight tournament titles and reached the NCAA Championship semifinals in 2015, Barlow’s first year as an assistant coach.

It felt “weird” for Barlow to watch Illinois compete from an assistant coach’s perspective. Some of his responsibilities include ensuring each player has proper equipment and recruiting potential players — which was the most challenging for him to learn.

“(Small) knows so many different people, techniques,” Barlow said, smiling. “(It) makes it easier on me, because I don’t have to do a whole lot of teaching and things like that.”

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