Mike Small Revisited

Illinois men’s golf coach Mike Small was in the news today regarding his announcement that he will try to qualify for the 2016 Champions Tour this December (he turns 50 in March). Will this hurt his coaching in any way? Absolutely not! In fact, his ongoing accomplishments as a player earn him tremendous respect among his players and recruits.

Way back in 2010, I had the opportunity to interview the coach for my Whiffling Straits blog and asked him, among other things, if he ever thought about playing on the Champions Tour once he turned 50. Here is that interview in its entirety (and thanks again, Coach, for being so gracious with your time!) …

(Image: Small with his 2010 PGA Professional National Championship Trophy. Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America.)
Whiffling Straits: Is it unusual for a college coach to play as much competitive golf as you do?
Mike Small: I don’t think anybody does it to my level. A lot of [college coaches] played in the past, on tour, but they seem not to have success once they start coaching. When I started coaching, I didn’t think I’d be playing this well or this much. So I didn’t really plan on it. But the way I’ve played, it just kind of evolved.
WS: What kind of challenges does that present?
MS: It actually presents a lot of them. It makes things really confusing. But I think there are a lot of positives that come out of it that outweigh the negatives. The negatives are, obviously, family time, away from home, I’m gone a lot. Coaching is my number one gig, my full-time thing, that’s what everything kind of revolves around. But at the same time, playing at my level, or trying to play, is an advantage to our program. It’s a niche that we have that kind of helps separate ourselves from other schools. I tell people we don’t have the ocean, we don’t have the [warm] weather, that a lot of other programs have … but every program has to kind of have a niche, a fit. And we run our program, approach our program from a player’s perspective, somebody who’s still playing. [Because] all these kids aspire to play on tour someday.
The positives behind it: being out there and still being in the game, competitively, learning the new stuff that’s on the cutting edge in golf when you’re on the PGA tour, playing in events, equipment-wise. I’m bringing information and knowledge back to the players that most coaches get second-hand. So to get that first-hand is always nice and it helps our development.
I always do my schedule around my coaching, but I have a very understanding AD – and my players are very understanding; they get a kick out of it. So when conflicts do arise, I have to make the decision based on what’s happening. But if we’re playing in a tournament that’s not as big or as prominent, or I can be gone when I need to play in a tour event, I usually can go. But that doesn’t happen very often at all. I try to have coaching be number one and playing be number two. And that’s the way I schedule my time professionally.
But with the family, and being gone a lot, it is tough. But they get a lot of advantages, too, being a coach at a major university, and also being able to play on tour. Like this next week we’re going to Disney World for the tournament. The whole family is going. So it will be fun to go down there and spend some time, kind of relive the old days of playing, and then our fall season is done. Where it gets tricky is with recruiting. Because coaches recruit every day, all day, almost. And I do that on the road, juggle two things at once.
But to wrap this whole answer up, personally I think it makes me better at both. Because if you do something all the time, 100% of the time, you get a little stale and burn out on it. I think coaching, if I’m coaching all the time with the guys, all spring, and I know I have some tour events coming up, or the PGA of America event coming up, in early summer, it kind of gives you something to look forward to and it gives you a fresh clear picture … you don’t get stale. There’s no repetitive stuff, there’s always something to look forward to, and vice versa. When I’m out playing for a week or two, I’m always looking forward to coming back and talking to the guys and see how they’re doing, and see what we can do with their game. I think my patience is better, I think I’m fresher at what I do with both of them. I’m not on edge or stressed out with just one job.
WS: Does it help you feel like one of the guys?
MS: Yeah, I think so. Normally I only play about four or five events a year. So I don’t really play a lot of tournaments, but I space them out so I stay involved. But it’s weird, the last 7, 8, 9 years, I’ve played so well in the PGA of America events, and the Illinois events, the Illinois Open, the Illinois PGA, I’ve been winning them. And it’s always in the news, and people are reading that and thinking I’m always playing. But I’m really not. I play four or five times a year.
Now this year I’ve played more. And next year I’ll play more. And like in 2006, I played more, because when I won the National Club Professional Championship – or the PGA Professional National Championship, what it’s called now, the PPNC – I get all those exemptions the following year. So I’ll play 11 or 12 events in those years, and this coming year, because of the exemptions. I’ve been fortunate to play well and get some media attention, so it seems like I’m playing a lot.
WS: Is it tough to keep your game sharp, to find time to practice?
MS: Yes. It’s getting harder and harder. I’m getting older. My kids are at an age now there are more things to do with them at night, school, and their activities. And yes, finding time to practice the last few years has gotten tougher.
WS: At this level of the college game, what do you primarily work on with your players?
MS: It’s probably more mental game, course management, scoring – scoring attitude and aptitude they have to have. But we’ll work individually on their golf swings if we need to. But if you’re a top 20 team in the country and you’re recruiting kids where you need to build golf swings, you’re recruiting the wrong ones. At this level … major college golf is not a golf academy. We need to teach these kids how to be players. And how to be tournament players and how to score and deliver a score. The golf swing is obviously a portion of that, but they should hopefully have good fundamentals when they come here.
What we spend a lot of time on is ball flight, distance control, short game, getting command of our short game, increasing the number of shots they have. Most of them have five or six different shot around the green when they come in, if that many. You need to have 20-25 to be good. We [work on] how to handle course conditions, the mental approach to the game, mental toughness, mental competence, how to handle different situations. And I think that’s where we tie it all together.
WS: Do players at this level generally have their own swing coaches back home?
MS: A lot of them do, some don’t. But I’m involved even if they do have swing coaches. I’m involved to the extent where I’m the eyes and ears here. I don’t want them to stop working with their coaches if they’ve had success with them; that would be foolish on my part. I’m not one of those coaches who has a big ego or an attitude where [I say], “You come work for me. You’re playing for me and you need to work with me.” But their game and their mental state and their emotional state and their confidence is the most important thing we can infuse. So, they may have their own coaches, but I don’t get in the middle of that unless I’m invited in. But the kids that don’t have coaches, yes I work with them.
WS: You have an “off-season” coming up – do your players stay pretty active? I know Illinois has a new practice facility …
MS: Yes, it’s been there four years, it’s been great. This is our fourth winter coming up, it’s been fabulous.
It’s up to them. NCAA rules preclude us from working a lot in the offseason. We can’t make them work, they have to get back to class and study, but we can work a couple hours a week with them individually. And it’s up to them to make that call. But a lot of them they still do practice and keep their heads in the game at that facility.
WS: How big of an advantage do the warm weather schools have?
MS: Well, golf is an outdoor sport. You can play tennis inside in the winter if you have to, play matches, play tournaments. And most sports you can do it inside, but golf you can’t. It’s a game you can’t play in the winter. And we’re at a disadvantage there. But if you look at the players who have had success on the PGA tour, and players that have had success in the majors, a lot of them played in the north, and in the Big Ten. So I don’t think it’s an end all that you have to be in warm weather to be great. I don’t think that at all. I think players like to take a break; they like to take a little bit and get away from it in the wintertime.
At the same time, the southern schools compete earlier … but we’re flying down there back and forth too, so we don’t really look at that as a disadvantage. In part because the tournaments that count, the really big championships, happen in April, May, and June. By then we’re ready to go. And we have the ability now that we can actually get better in the winter anyway, in a static, controlled environment, which is important.
WS: Tell me a little about the new facility …
MS: It keeps us in the game all winter long. Back in the day when we didn’t have that, we would hit balls into a net that was ten feet from us, and then go home and watch TV. And now we’re in an all-inclusive facility – you can find out more about it online. It’s fabulous, you could spend all day in there if you wanted to. You can practice almost every shot in golf. Hit balls inside out and see it fly, practice putting inside. It has the ability to … it keeps our head in the game, it builds camaraderie, it builds a nice atmosphere for our team to be around there, a competitive atmosphere. And it gives us a chance to continue to get better.
As evidence, the first year we had that thing open, our first two events in February, we shot lower scores in February than our fall averages. So it shows that we got better over the winter. And it’s been that way most every year. Scott Langley’s short game has evolved so much, primarily because of that building. In the winter he can practice his short game, like I said in a controlled, static environment, where you can work on your short game, work on your technique all winter long.
WS: What are you looking forward to in the spring? You’re ranked number 9 I think right now …?
MS: The coaches have us ninth, the computers have us seventh and eighth, so we’re right in there. It’s going to be good. It’s always tough to repeat, it’s always tough to three-peat, but I think we can do it. I think we may be a better team now than we have been. I’m not really sure. This winter’s going to go a long way to proving that, and getting us ready for the spring.
I know there are two or three Big Ten teams that are really coming on, really playing well, so it’s going to be a bit more difficult this year. But I tell my guys, in the fall you try to win tournaments, in the spring you try to win championships. And we have a lot to play for.
WS: Scott Langley is a guy getting a lot of press, Luke Guthrie had a big win in Columbus … who else should we be keeping an eye on in the spring?
MS: [Senior] Chris DeForest last year finished as the Les Bolstad Award winner, which is the best stroke average in the Big Ten, he won that last year. He was rated the second best player in the Big Ten. So last year in the spring season I had the one, two, and four players in the conference. This year we’re looking at about the same, we have three of the top five, I would think, in the conference. Those guys gotta show up and play.
And then you have Thomas Pieters, a freshman from Belgium, and you have Mason Jacobs, a sophomore from southern Illinois [Metropolis]. Those guys are going to have to get better and improve, and if they can we can be better than last year. There’s still some unfinished business. We’ve won a lot of tournaments, and we’ve been ranked in the top 10 or 12 for about three years now. But we really haven’t played that well in the [NCAA] finals yet. We finished something like 18th, 17th, and 20th the last three years. We have to play better than that. There’s a lot to improve, a lot to strive for. [Note: Pieters recently had back-to-back wins on the European Tour.]
WS: Any particular goals on the national level?
MS: Yeah, we want to continue to stay highly ranked, we want to continue to get better every day, that’s kind of our goal. And we want to contend for a national championship. And I think once you get to the national finals, anything can happen. We’ve been fortunate enough to do that the last three years, and haven’t really finished it off. Scott played well last year, won the whole national championship. Our team kind of had a struggle that week. So we have some unfinished business in the national championship.
WS: Finally, as far as your future is concerned … you’re 44 – is it too early to start thinking about the senior tour, the Champions Tour, is that something you’re looking forward to?
MS: People ask me that all the time! But who knows what my body’s going to be like five years from now, when I’m really seriously considering it. If I can stay in shape and keep my body young, I don’t know why I wouldn’t try it. I know my mind is young. Being around these kids it stays young. That’s one of the big assets to the job, you don’t feel like you’re getting old. Well, [actually] you do.
And it’s one of those things where … I’m just living for today, trying to keep my game in gear for next year, for these events. I didn’t play as well as I’d have liked this summer. I played well like three times, four times. I struggled like five or six. So there are some issues I have to get through, figure out. But I got business here to take care of right now. I want to help these guys get as good as they can. And I want to continue to play every year, make some extra money, and keep my hand in the game competitively. So yes, that’s in the back of my mind, but who knows what that’s going to be like five years from now.
WS: Last question: What’s Justin Timberlake really like?
MS: You know, I only just said “hi” to him briefly walking by, I didn’t talk to him [at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open]. But he was hitting balls on the practice range during the practice rounds. He seemed like a really class guy. He gives a lot of his time and energy to good causes. I know he likes golf a lot. And just watching him interact with the players and be the host of the tournament was really impressive to me, and I’ve kind of become a fan.
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