Just five months removed from turning 50, Mike Small, a two-time winner on the Web.com Tour and a veteran of 12 major championships, is thankful for the opportunity to compete with some of the most recognizable names in the game at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio.
For Small, the benefits of continuing to compete as a player throughout his 16 years as the head coach of the University of Illinois men’s golf program are measurable.
“I could be watching kids play right now, walking nine holes with them,” said Small. “But for them to see me out here learning and competing with the best in the game shows them I’m more committed to their development by being a part of it, than me just sitting outside of it barking orders.”
It’s hard to argue with the results that his approach has produced. The former touring pro – he had full-time status on the PGA Tour in 1998 and spent 1996, 1997 and 1999 on the Nike Tour – got the call from his alma mater in 2000 to help to resurrect the Illini program.
About a decade earlier, Small had earned All-Big Ten honors while teammate Steve Stricker was the conference player of the year, as the two of them led the squad to its first Big Ten title since 1941. The pair helped the team to a runner-up conference finish and a second straight trip to the NCAA Championship the following year before embarking on their professional careers, leaving behind a program that was unable to sustain that level of success. When Small returned in 2000 as the head coach, the Illini were coming off a last-place finish in the conference tournament.
Small immediately went to work, and the results have been staggering. The Illini have won the Big Ten title 10 times in the last 11 years, including 2019, and have been to the NCAA Championship 14 times, highlighted by a runner-up finish in 2013 and semifinal appearances in 2015 and 2016, and 2017. Small has been named the Big Ten coach of the year 11 times, and was the National Coach of the Year in 2015. Illinois will try to add to its NCAA totals when it competes in the NCAA Regionals May 13-15.
Among those who have come through the program are Thomas Pietersand Scott Langley, both of whom won NCAA individual titles under Small. Langley and Brian Campbell have earned low-amateur honors at the U.S. Open. Getting players of that caliber to compete for the Illini is the product of Small’s goal to build a program that can achieve success for the long term.
“I didn’t want to have a good team, I wanted to have a program. There’s a difference between a good team and a program,” said Small. “It started with a commitment from the administration. We needed facilities, so we started getting a game plan there. We improved the schedule. And getting a presence on the PGA Tour is going to come eventually once you recruit better players. You’ve got to have the talent.”
One key element, Small determined, was to continue to compete, something recruits could relate to. While he was turning the Illini into a national power, Small captured the PGA National Professional Championship three times, most recently in 2010, made the cut in the PGA Championship three times, and was low club professional in the championship twice. When he first earned that honor, in 2007, he saw how clearly his strategy was paying off.
“When I was recruiting Luke [Guthrie], he came down to the PGA Championship at Southern Hills and watched me play all four rounds and said, ‘I want to play for somebody who can do that,’” Small recalled. “Even though I didn’t win, I was still out there learning and grinding and could relate.”
History is filled with touring pros who tire of the grind and find success as a club professional or college coach. Many of them later take the opportunity to jump back in as a full-time competitor at 50. Small is happy to have the chance to play, but doesn’t see a shift back to the life he once knew. At least not exclusively.
“When I played the last two [PGA Tour Champions] events, I had the joy of seeing the guys again. I enjoy it, but I like variety in my life,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to play full-time. I enjoy the kids too much, enjoy coaching. But it’s important to keep playing. I’m not going to quit competing.”
Scott Lipsky is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.