Mike Small barely missed joining an elite group of repeat champions. (Photo: PGA of America)
Mike Small barely missed joining an elite group of repeat champions. (Photo: PGA of America)

Small's big back-to-back bid comes up just a little short

Mike Small teed off Sunday trying to become only the third player ever to win the PGA Professional National Championship twice in a row. An unlikely mid-round stumble ended his hopes, but he still earned a coveted spot at Medinah.

By T.J. Auclair, Junior Editor

VERONA, N.Y. -- Winning back-to-back PGA Professional National Championships is an incredible feat. It's only been done twice in the tournament's 39-year history.

Roger Watson won consecutive titles in 1974 and 1975 and the late Larry Gilbert was able to make it two in a row after his win in 1982.

Mike Small, the head golf coach at the University of Illinois and 2005 National Champion, was hoping to be the third player to join the exclusive club of repeat winners.

Small entered the final round of the 39th PGA Professional National Championship at Atunyote Golf Club in central New York on Sunday tied for the lead with Indiana's Alan Schulte. Under a blanket of dark clouds, the pair stood on the first tee three shots clear of the rest of the field at 9-under-par.

This was just the third National Championship appearance for Small, who along with his win had finished second in 2004.

Perhaps the gloomy weather and dark clouds floating above the course was foreshadowing for the uncharacteristic day Small had in store.

Things looked promising in the early going. He picked up a birdie at the second hole to move to 10-under and took sole possession of the lead.

However, after five holes, Small was still playing steady but found himself in a share for the lead with red-hot Ron Philo Jr., a professional from White Plains, N.Y., and brother of LPGA star Laura Diaz, who had carded an ace and two birdies over his first five holes and eventually outdid Schulte in a three-hole playoff.

After playing 61 holes of near-flawless golf, Small's hopes of a repeat win crumbled on just two measly holes -- No. 7 and No. 8.

Golf is a cruel game.

At No. 7, a 433-yard par 4, he took a double-bogey, but was just one shot out of the lead since Philo also bogeyed the seventh.

A stern, feisty, ice-veined competitor, Small did the unthinkable at the 576-yard, par-5 eighth hole -- he three-putted and made bogey. The par putt was shorter than his putter.

"I made a bad choice of clubs on No. 7 to make double and then on the next hole, I just missed a short putt," he said.

In the blink of an eye, Small went from being the leader to trying to salvage a high finish.

"I didn't have any game inside of 20 yards on the last three holes," Small said. "My scoring mentality and shots were bad, I putted horribly and made a couple of bad putting decisions. I made a couple of bad club decisions, and if you're not making any putts you're not going to shoot very low."

Small finished the tournament at 7-under 281 and finished alone in fourth place. His 2-over 74 in the final round was his worst round of the week.

If there is a silver-lining in Small's unlikely final-round flinch, it's the fact that he will be playing in the 88th PGA Championship at Medinah in August. That was his goal at the start of the week, as Medinah is in his home state of Illinois.

"That's going to be a fun week," he said. "I've got to work on my game beforehand to make sure we're ready to go, but it's going to be a fun week."

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