Mike Small had been there before.
A lead shrinking. Birdies being made by opposing players all around. But he had persevered and won, first as a member of the Illinois golf team. Later, and often, as a professional.
When you’ve won 14 state majors and have successfully chased the low club pro title in the PGA Championship, you’ve been under pressure a little bit.
Now the Fighting Illini players that he coaches were under pressure. Their chance to win four consecutive Big Ten titles was shrinking. Indiana was making a charge during the final round on the Pete Dye Course at the posh French Lick Resort in French Lick, Ind.
“We were crumbling,” Small said. “But the last six holes, the last nine holes, the guys played great.”
Illinois was the favorite, and had succeeded, the previous three years. This year, with NCAA champion Scott Langley graduated, Illinois was just one of the pack, but, led by two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Luke Guthrie, took a seven-stroke lead into the final round of play.
Then things started to happen, especially among the Hoosiers. And Illinois’ players, from Guthrie to junior Mason Jacobs to sophomore Thomas Pieters, responded.
“We had some players who really bought in,” Small said of the players he’s recruited. “They have a tough mental mindset.”
One instilled in large part by 46-year-old Small, the Danville native in his 12th season as coach. What he’s learned playing tournament golf, from his experiences winning three PGA National Professional titles – the old PGA Club Pro championship – to four Illinois Opens in five years and eight Illinois PGA Championships in a row from 2003 to 2010, he passes on to his players.
They listen. They act.
“This program’s won 23 tournaments in the last four years,” Small said. “There’s a mental toughness here not a lot of teams have.”
So Small gathered his troops before the final round and said, “I don’t know if we’ll win or not, but I want to go down swinging.”
Small knew how much the other teams wanted to knock off Illinois, for he was part of a team led by Steve Stricker that stopped Ohio State’s conference winning streak in 1988. Now his guys wore the target.
With defense barred in golf, the Illini were powerless to stop Indiana’s surge. But the reverse was true after the seven-stroke lead became a three-stroke deficit.
Jacobs chipped in from 40 feet for an eagle on the par-5 18th. Pieters, the Belgian import headed for the European team at this summer’s Palmer Cup, came along behind him and ran down a 20-foot birdie at the last. Those dramatics and misadventures by Indiana players in the final two holes, including a triple-bogey by Chase Wright at the 17th, brought the lead back to Illinois.
Guthrie, whose three-putt at the last hole months earlier had cost Illinois the conference match-play crown, clinched the team title, and his second straight individual crown, with a smooth par on the final hole. His back-to-back titles are the first in the conference since Luke Donald accomplished the feat for Northwestern in 2000-01, and the first for an Illinois player since Stricker in 1988-89.
Former athletic director Ron Guenther hired Small as head coach in the summer of 2000. Since then, Illinois has become a regular factor in the conference and the NCAA Championship – including last year’s tie for fifth – and Small’s won five conference coach of the year awards.
Today, Illinois will learn its NCAA Regional destination. Success there means a trip to the NCAA Championship at Riviera Country Club at the end of May. It would be Illinois’ seventh berth in the past decade.
“The last four years, only seven teams have made the national finals every year, and we’re one of them,” Small said. “I’m proud of continuing our legacy.”
Tom Kearfott, of downstate El Paso, captured the Will County Amateur at Balmoral Woods on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff with defending champion Michael Natale. Kearfott shot 1-under 71 in the windy first round and a 78 in the second round, played in a gale, but parred the par-5 first while Natale bogeyed after they matched totals at 5-over 149. … Brian Hickey, of Downers Grove, Sumeet Arora, of Woodridge, and Paul White, of Glen Ellyn, were medalists in the first three Illinois Mid-Amateur qualifying tournaments. …
The Illinois Public Links starts a two-day run today at Dunne National in Oak Forest. Only the low 20 and ties from the field of 84 survive the cut. Today also brings one of two U.S. Open local qualifiers, this one at Inverness Golf Club. Next Monday’s local qualifier is at Schaumburg Golf Club.