Illinois men’s golf competing without Mike Small

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

Just don’t tell that to Mike Small. Despite spending his time teaching the Illini how to become better golfers, the Illinois men’s golf head coach hasn’t hung up his own golfing bag.

Small, a three-time PGA professional national champion, has played in 11 major championships and competed on the PGA Tour in 1998. This weekend, he is competing in the PGA Cup, a Ryder Cup-style tournament that is bringing the best PGA Professionals from the United States against PGA Professionals from England and Ireland. This will be Small’s fifth appearance in the tournament; the United States is 3-1 in his appearances.

With Small more than 3,000 miles away, the Illinois men’s golf team will be without its head coach when it heads to Zionsville, Ind., for the Wolf Run Invitational.

Assistant coach Justin Fetcho will take over head coaching duties for the tournament, a role he has previously performed as an assistant on the Oregon women’s golf team when head coach Ria Scott went on maternity leave.

“It’s just a little bit different not having the head coach there,” he said. “They won’t have quite the coaches’ attention, but I think it’ll be a relaxed atmosphere. These guys are going to come in and not feel too much pressure.”

The invitational is pretty familiar for the Illini. Four of Illinois’ five players have competed at the golf course, and Illinois has won the last three Wolf Run Invites, in 2012, 2010 and 2009.

“We’re lucky. They’re all returners,” Fetcho said. “These guys know how to play that golf course.”

Fetcho said Small’s ability to still compete benefits the program.

“These guys soak that up. They love seeing Coach Small out there competing whether it’s the PGA Cup over there, playing PGA championships or just (PGA) Tour events,” he said. “It does worlds for the program and for these guy’s confidence to see him competing at that level.”

Sophomores Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry said that it’s cool having a coach who is still competing.

“It’s a huge thing for Illini golf because it shows that we have a coach who can play with almost any pro out there and to represent Illinois and the U.S. is a big deal.”

Detry said it makes playing at Illinois all the more enjoyable.

“It’s fun to compete against him, like a chipping contest against him is always a pretty tough challenge,” he said. “Beating my coach is always fun.”

The Illini got off to a slow start their last time out but shot the low round on Sunday, besting top-5 teams like Alabama and Texas. Detry said that a talk with Coach Small was key to Illinois’ success Sunday.

But that won’t happen this weekend.

“We’ll see (if it has an effect),” Detry said. “We still talked to him Sunday night before he left.”

The Wolf Run Invitational has limited competition – only No. 16 Auburn is in the top 25 and just three Big Ten teams are competing. Fetcho said the team will hardly notice Small’s absence.

“It’s not like he’s really gonna be gone,” he said. “It’s just his presence. He physically won’t be there, but these guys will keep hearing in their mind the same thing he preaches week in and week out.”

Sophomore Charlie Danielson agreed: “He preaches to us the same things every week, so we all have a pretty good idea of how he wants us to play on the course. We’re just gonna take what he taught us last week, take what he taught us in previous years. Having him gone during a tournament doesn’t change too much.”

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.