Small playing career not over, but Illinois is his focus

By Ryan Wilson

It’s wintertime, and Illinois men’s
golf coach Mike Small, who turns 50 next month, is starting to feel it in his
back and elbow.

He’s had back injuries all his
life. He fractured the radial head in his elbow in three different places after
being knocked down in a basketball game. It led to a surgery to put pins and
screws in his elbow, ninth months of rehab and rest from golf.

“The good news is, I came back and
played better than ever,” Small said. “That was good, but now it’s
starting to hurt a little bit more.”

Small went on to play for Team USA against
Great Britain and Ireland in the 22nd PGA Cup in 2005. It was the first time in
his 26-year career competing in the PGA Cup.

The injuries limit Small’s
range of motion, but he’s not letting that stop his desire to compete
professionally.

He most recently competed in the
Champions Tour Qualifying School and tied for 43rd with a 5-under par in December —
his first PGA Tour event since 2013. He spent the time away from golf focusing on Illinois and the Dermijian Golf Practice Facility.

He practiced three to four times
with the Illinois golf team at the Demirjian facility last fall to sharpen his golf game.
As the Champions tournament approached, he headed to Myrtle Beach, South
Carolina, to practice seven hours a day. He combined that with three hours of rehab each
week.

He wants to practice more and
continue chasing majors. He still has exemptions on the Champions Tour and opportunities to play in other tournaments. He predicted he has five or six
years left of competing professionally, but that his future depends on his performance in the
next two years.

“My life is changing,” Small said.
“My desire to play at that level is not as strong as it was three or four years
ago … but it’s still there.”

Even then, when he’s practiced over
the last few years, he hasn’t been doing it for himself; he’s been doing it for his
players. 

He has used his swing as a “test dummy” for his golfers — a way that he
said helps and hurts his swing. He’s
tried emulating his new players’ swings to help better understand how to help
them improve.

“I’m more interested in their game probably, right now than
mine,” Small said.

He also wants the Illinois golfers
to beat him in golf, and in the 2015 Illinois Open, Nick Hardy came two strokes
shy of doing so. Small, a four-time winner of the tournament, shot a 4-under
par to tie for sixth, while Hardy was tied for 12th with a 2-under.

“(The Illinois golfers) like it when I play,”
Small said. “They like when they have a coach that goes out and tries to
compete even if I fail. So win or lose, I think they like it because I’m out
there throwing my hat in the ring and not just sitting at home on my couch. I’m
actually going out and risking time and money to go out and play, and I think
they appreciate that.”

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