Mike Small had big plans for this week. He flew to Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Saturday and hoped to play, practice and train for seven hours a day in advance of next week’s first stage of Champions Tour Q-School.
Then the weather turned miserable. Then his back went out.
A cruel reminder that his road to the senior circuit is more difficult than most.
Small, who turns 50 in March, is the highly successful head coach at Illinois, which finished the fall season Nov. 3 with a victory, its third of the season, at the East Lake Cup. The Illini are ranked No. 2 in the country, continuing a historic run from last season, when they won a school-record nine times, earned the No. 1 seed in NCAA match play, and lost in the semifinals.
Small has played 12 majors and more than 71 PGA Tour events in his career. He earned a full-time card for one season, in 1998, but since has developed into one of the most accomplished PGA professionals in the country, winning three national championships and appearing on five PGA Cup teams.
For the past 15 years, he has juggled his growing responsibilities of being a high-profile coach and his desire to play competitively. This foray into Q-School is no different.
“I coach first, play second,” he said. “But when I’m not coaching, I don’t want to sit back in my recliner. I might as well do something.”
And so this fall, with an eye on this qualifier, Small practiced with his team more than he has in recent years. He conceded that he needs to play better next week or he’s “going to get run over.”
From the outside, it would seem that Small devoting more time to his game would hurt his program.
Just the opposite is true.
Small is never more relatable to his players than when he returns from a tournament. Heck, Luke Guthrie, one of the best players in program history, committed to the Illini after watching Small play in a PGA Championship. Guthrie was in town for a PGA Junior Series event, but when he saw a college coach competing (and faring well) in front of 20,000 fans at Southern Hills, he was sold.
Small enjoys the thrill of victory, just like his players. But more importantly, he also understands failure, what went wrong, and the process to improve.
“It’s what I do,” Small said. “I like to compete. I like to win and be nervous and not know what’s coming next. That’s what you teach your kids – to live for the day, prepare, and don’t be afraid to lay your neck out on the line. Personally, playing helps me coach better.”
This isn’t to say that Small has abandoned his day job, either.
Back when he was playing in PGAs, Small often would call recruits at night. This week in South Carolina – when he isn’t on a chiropractor’s table for three hours to work on his ailing back – he will sit on a conference call with his fellow Big Ten coaches and also monitor national signing day, which begins Wednesday.
“I’m burning the candle at both ends,” he said, “but that’s what I’ve done forever.”