Small comes up big - again

Writing from Hinsdale, Illinois

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Mike Small has come from behind to win some of his dozen Illinois PGA Championship titles, but he’s most comfortable as a front-runner.

As in Tuesday, when the Illinois men’s coach raced through the field at Ruth Lake Country Club, scoring 8-under-par 63, a competitive course record, to take a five-stroke lead into the final round of the abbreviated 98th edition.

Small was 5-under after five holes and increased his lead from there, finishing with a pair of birdies to build a lead Secretariat would be proud of.

“I just want to play good golf,” said Small, whose swing adjustment about a fortnight ago to stand a bit farther from the ball at address paid off handsomely.

It was Small’s third 63 in the section championship. The others came in the opening round in 2007 and the second round in 2010. He won those titles by three and 11 strokes, respectively.

The competitive course record had been 6-under 65, set by Bart Bryant in 2013 U.S. Senior Open qualifying. Travis Johns, who scored 1-under 70 on Tuesday along with Garrett Chaussard, has the overall mark of 62 in a round of casual play.

For Small, who had six birdies, plus an eagle on the par-5 fifth, the key was staying in the moment.

“I try to do what I tell other people, not to think about it,” Small said of his torrid start. “When I struggle playing and get in bad ruts, it’s because I look at a round of golf like a coach. I evaluate everything. I evaluate recruits, my team, but when you play, you can’t evaluate when you’re playing, because if I do, then you’re out of what you’re playing.”

Small counted his 240-yard 3-wood to 12 feet on the par-3 third as a bonus birdie. It moved him to 3-under, and dropping a 30-foot eagle putt on the fifth brought him to 5-under in as many holes. It was the day’s only eagle on the 522-yard par 5.

It could have been better. He splashed an 8-iron into the water on the par-5 15th and missed a trio of 10-footers.

“It should have been in the 50s,” said one observer.

Small had scored 1-under 71 in Monday’s round, which was cancelled when more than half the field was unable to finish. He tried to put that aside by the time he reached the first tee.

“I was in a position where I wasn’t sure it was good or bad,” Small said. “Who knows what I was going to shoot today. You try not to evaluate it, but human nature is to look at it. I was 1-under but four back (of Brian Carroll).”

Carroll scored 2-under 69 in his do-over, three strokes higher than the original 66 that was vaporized. He’s tied for third with Chris French (68 on Monday) entering the Wednesday’s second and final round.

Between Small and that duo is Mistwood’s Andy Mickelson, eligible to play in the section soiree for the first time. He made the most of it with a 3-under 68 featuring a quartet of birdies.

Mickelson’s charge on the morrow is to track down Small.

“I’d just like to keep pace,” Mickelson said. “Honestly, I would hope he shoots another 8-under, because it’s real easy to watch and pace yourself on. If he does, it’s over, but if you keep pace, you’re in (second) anyway.”

Small’s first victory in the Illinois PGA came in 2001, when he beat Dino Lucchesi by two strokes at Kemper Lakes. He won eight straight from 2003-2010 and picked up victories in 2013, 2014 and 2016 as well. He’s 94-under with a 47-stroke margin over the field in his dozen triumphs.

Something of a part-time player with his coaching duties, Small said this was only his fourth tournament of the year. He adjusted his swing to stop crowding the ball at impact at the behest of Dr. Greg Rose of the Titleist Performance Institute, who watched him hit balls in Champaign a few weeks ago.

“He a biomechanist, and he saw something he thought would help,” Small said. “It helped.”

Around Ruth Lake

Small on cancelling the first round: “That’s an argument for another day. You can’t have an opinion on it. If you do, it’ll mess with you.” … An ace was recorded by Kurt Rogers of Decatur’s South Side Golf Club with a 3-wood on the 242 yard par-3 third hole. Alas, he gave the two strokes back two holes later on the par-5 seventh. He finished with a 2-over 73. … While Small, Carroll and French were under par both Monday and Tuesday, Jim Billiter and David Pagelow couldn’t repeat the feat, scoring 72 and 66 respectively. … The field averaged 77.60 strokes on a breezy day. Six players were under par and another seven at par.

Tim Cronin


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