Mike Small Has Illini Golf Teed Up For Another Championship Run

By Larry Smith - IlliniGuys Staff Writer

April 1, 2022

Danville native Mike Small has enjoyed a stellar career both as a golfer and golf coach.  Arguably the greatest golfer the state of Illinois has ever produced, the former PGA Tour player guided the Illini golf team to a lofty status as one of the nation's pre-eminent programs.  11 Big Ten championships in the last 12 years and the Illini have made 13 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, a streak that's second longest in the nation.

This weekend, the Illini men's golf team is in Augusta, Georgia for the Augusta Haskins Award Invitational at historic Forest Hills Golf Club.

IlliniGuy Larry Smith caught up with the golf legend recently on the syndicated radio show IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular as the Illini were in Tucson, Arizona to compete in the National Invitational Tournament.

LS: The National Invitation Tournament...there is an NIT in basketball as well. Is that similar...where only those top teams get to play?

MS: Yeah, this was one of the biggest events in college golf back in the day, maybe 20-30 years ago, even when I played and to get a chance to come out in the desert in March, a lot of teams like that opportunity to come out and get some good weather. And now at the National Championship being held in in Scottsdale for the next two years, a lot of teams like to come out play this event anyway, spend time out here playing in the desert getting used to the different kind of golf that it is. And the event continues to draw a strong field. I think this week that the three top teams in the country are here. So it's a good test for us this time of year, but we come out obviously for the field, the history of the event, but also, you know, the place to play some more golf in the desert.

LS: It must have been a neat feeling when you first got the call to be a part of this event.

MS: Yeah, we've been fortunate last few, you know, probably 15 years to be one of the top teams in the country every year that guys have ended up and delivered what we wanted to make this program be. So since that's happened, we get invited to a lot of events. And it's kind of nice to have the opportunity to pick and choose and kind of figure out where we want to go. There's a lot of events that we don't go to that we can't fit them into our days of competition allotment.

LS; Those of us who love golf are just slightly envious, that's your life to just run and play all these great courses. Earlier this week, you guys were in Scottsdale playing and getting ready. Obviously it's a little chilly in Champaign right now. Did you get a chance to play the courses where the NCAA championship is going to be played?

MS: We did. That was also part of the part of the trip out here. You know, back home we're not outside playing golf yet as the courses aren't fully opened. So it's been that way for years. For us, it's always that way. Half our season is over before we can get outside, but again it's worked out well for us. We stopped and we played a couple rounds up at Desert Mountain to knock some rust off and then we played  Greyhawk so the guys can see the golf course. Last year, we finished top five again. We made the quarterfinals where we got beat by Oklahoma. So just kind of get a feel for the venue. Of course it isn't the same as it's going to be come May and June.  It's gonna be a lot firmer, faster, a different kind of golf course. But the layout is obviously the same. So just to see it and get a feel for it was a big deal for us.

LS: Yeah, that's nice. I remember playing the Raptor course there years ago, though I'm certain I did not fare as well as I'm sure you did!  Talk about building this program into one of the premier national programs where you're one of those teams that gets a chance to recruit well and, you know, when you call, people pick up the phone. What have the challenges been like to build that?  Obviously academics are not an issue at Illinois. But you're not in a warm weather city. It's not like you can go out year round and just play golf. How's that been a challenge for you in bringing top players to Illinois?

MS: Well, that is the biggest challenge for teams in the Big 10. A lot of it is just perception maybe and we've maybe hopefully broken that perception that you can't have a good team in the North. You know, we started 20 years ago and we wanted to build something special. We wanted to build a program, not just a team that every three or four years is good. Somebody that's consistent and solid and has a great reputation. And now we've been top five in the country seven of the last 10 years. You know, we've produced two individual national champions. It's something that we wanted to do, but we still fight the perception that you can't play or you can't get your game better in the north. But I think people are starting to see the results obviously, by now. And our facilities - we've had great support from our donors and alumni, people who support our program. We've built some unbelievable facilities on campus that we can actually get better in the winters.  It's something that we've kind of built our brand, kind of a tough-minded, blue collar type of attitude we play under that kind of fits our climate, if you will. But then when March rolls around, right now the courses are opening back home and we're fresh and ready to go for the for the push in March, April, May and June. Like I said, in the last 15 years we've been as good as anybody and and so that's what we want to keep going. it's just our mentality, it's our personality. We embrace it and it's worked well for us.

LS: Mike, you're talking about facilities and there was a really exciting event just a couple of weeks ago with the opening of the new Atkins Golf Course facility. talk about that. I remember as a kid I used to caddy for my grandfather and the DUC Hookers at the Orange course in Savoy. Nothing against that track, but certainly this provides you a much better facility.

MS: Oh, it does. Well, you mentioned the DUC Hookers - those guys are my favorites, I don't get to see them as much as I used to. I probably need to get out and spend some time with them. But man, there's some good guys back when I played it Illinois, it was always fun to go out and hang out with them and have a Coke with them after the round. You know, Steve Stricker and I played back in the 80's, the Orange is where we hung our hat every day. But now obviously, we have three great country clubs in town that we have full access to for our team. And now the Atkins Golf Club -formerly Stone Creek - is going to be our own championship golf course that will measure 7500 yards long. It's going to be a tighter, firmer golf course and is going to give our guys a chance to play and practice at a golf course that kind of replicates the courses we see every week. And again, that the generosity of the Atkins family to turn that over to the university and give us control and kind of do what we want to do with it is going to be great for our program. It's just another step in what we've done over the years of building facilities, you know, on campus. Ron Guenther first started it when he hired me. We talked about building facilities and building this program 22 years ago, and then to see it grow. We have in the Lauritsen/Wohlers outdoor facility, the Demirjian indoor golf facility, and we just put a $2 million addition onto our facility from another great and generous donor. So it's something that we have to do to keep moving forward. A lot of the SEC schools and Big 12 schools have indoor facilities now and they don't even practically need them. But it's become something that I think the Big 10 - 11 of the 14 teams in the Big 10 have indoor facilities now. So something that we all have that, you know, you want to keep getting better and be competitive. But we have to keep improving them and keep growing our facilities. And that's what we've been able to do.

LS:  Explain to us how you coach golf during a tournament. I mean, you've got players all over the course and you've got to keep track. You can't be there for every single shot by every single player. So talk us through how the process works for you during a regular day?

MS: Well, that's a great question. I know there's a lot of trust involved and a lot of preparation. Obviously, you get there before the tournament starts. The practice rounds are huge. But I tell people if I was a basketball coach, I'd be the coach that would be sitting on the bench probably more than up running around yelling, you know, 'box out' and 'rebound' because my guys should understand they should know to box out and rebound without me yelling at them. You know, I think you train them in practice. You preach in a way that it becomes habit. And so you have to have a lot of faith and trust. I can't see them all. So when I'm on the golf course, you know to work with somebody a golf swing during the round of golf is incorrect. You want free quiet, positive minds when they're playing golf. wanting to be relaxed and focused. With that comes practice. You know, in preparation, what I do a lot during around is I manage body language, I manage emotions. And I try to get them in the zone at the level they play the best at mentally, emotionally and physically, you know. If they're off a little bit with their setup their tempo is a little bit off, I'll work with them. But we should work on golf swing stuff before after the round, not during it. So when I'm out there walking around, when they see me that should be a comforting feeling, it should be somebody there to support them and help them it shouldn't be somebody there that critique them and, and get in their ear, although sometimes you need to raise the level of intensity a little bit, sometimes a little bit off and you got to get you got to get to get them refocused maybe a little more assertive way. But I'm just kind of walking and seeing all five of them as much as I can throughout the round. But let them play, let them do their thing, because that's what you train them to do. And when they graduate from Illinois, I want them to be able to take their game to the next level and learn take the stuff they learned so they can be self-supportive instead of always having somebody there to make sure that they're doing it right. You know, a lot of the younger players, I think, in America, now when something goes wrong - I've said this for a while now - the first thing they do is go to their coach, the second thing they do is go to the video cam and the next thing that goes over their parents for the answer instead of looking at themselves and figuring it out. So I think as a coach, the best thing I can do is to get them to understand their own games, their own emotions, their own tendencies. So they can make those adjustments during a round of golf. Golf is just a game of adjustments, it's huge. Every time you have a lot of time between shots, you got to get your mind right and get your focus right, you got to work on the conditions, you got to understand how they changed throughout the day with the wind and the grasses and everything else. It's just that it's all evolving day, it's a four hour round. So if a coach is in somebody's grill for four hours, it's a little exhausting. So I just kind of let them do their thing. Now, I've never told a kid in 20 years what club he has to hit on a shot, I think he has to understand the responsibility that comes with that shot; that he's not only playing for himself, but for his teammates and his school. So there's the added responsibility of choosing the right play in the right shot. And then just let them figure out how to get through the round themselves. Trying to accomplish the goal of adding a successful score to the team score and then forgetting about it that night and starting all over the next day. So I'd be a coach that prepares them a lot. Trust them a lot. But at the same point in time after the round, if things don't go well, we have to open it up, air it out. So that they can get better the next day.

LS: I think that that the mental and psychological part of this is really crucial when you're in a tournament setting, especially because - you're right, in most other sports, you've got some time in between that you can decompress and put that away. But in golf, you're playing three or four days in a row.

MS: That's right. Even smaller than that. It's the next hole, the next shot. 200 shots a tournament and it comes down to one shot a lot of times to determine who wins and loses individually. And as a team you're taking, you know, 800-900 shots, but it comes down to one shot to win a team championship. So the margin for error is so small that there's a lot of time and challenges involved in that. So it's something that you have to stay in the present and be ready when that time comes to change course and to make some adjustments and I think that's what good players do. You know, you don't go into a tournament thinking you're gonna swing the same way every time or your game plan is going to go according to plan; it's like it always blows up. Something always happens, there's always some adversity obviously during a round a golf, but it happens earlier than you think.  That's the biggest thing young players don't understand is how to problem solve the game of golf. As a coach - take basketball, for instance.  You have timeouts, either stop momentum for the other team or call timeout and recalibrate. In golf, you got to call timeout yourself a lot during the round; take a deep breath and kind of recycle yourself and as a coach that's something I can do out there as well if they're not doing a very good job of that.

LS: I'm running out of time, but I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about your game. It's been a treat of mine to bump into you at majors from time to time. What are your plans for the summer?

MS: Well, thanks, Larry. That has been a big part of my life. Obviously, I wouldn't be coaching at Illinois if I hadn't played as a member of the PGA Tour. I really believe that and having gotten my game to the highest level in the sport and competed there means a lot to me. And I still play you know, a couple years ago, I ended up making the playoffs on the Champions Tour as a part time player. And I think three top 10. So it's important for me personally, to be successful in golf and to do something well that I put so much of my life into. But I am getting older. I'm 56 now and I noticed this week - I played a couple rounds with the guys on the team - that I need to play in practice a little more if I'm going to expect to expect the same things out of my game. So I need to have a talk with myself if I'm going to have to get out and work on my game which I need to because I want to stay at the level that I've played all these years and have some success. But if I don't my expectation levels got to come down which is something I don't want to accept either. So to answer your question, it's in there. It's just not out right now since it's hibernating. I need to figure it out!

LS: Well, we trust that you will!  Mike, we are always big fans of yours. Best of luck this season and we look forward to talking to you again here on the show.

MS: Larry, thank you! Keep up the great work and I know all our fans enjoy hearing your show.

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