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Mike Small
For the second time in the last four years, Mike Small is the proud recipient of the Walter Hagen Cup. (Photo: The PGA of America)

Small rallies on back nine to earn his second national title

Mike Small, the golf coach at the University of Illinois, edged Mark Sheftic and Steve Schneiter by a shot to win the PGA Professional National Championship on Wednesday. Small, who also won the title in 2005, finished at 7-under 277 after a final-round 68 at Twin Warriors.

By Bob Denney, PGA.com Contributor

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- Forgive Mike Small if he wasn’t hanging on his cell phone Wednesday afternoon to mark the first day that college golf coaches can contact recruits. The 2009 Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year was playing hooky by winning a second PGA Professional National Championship.

You’re off the hook, Coach.

The 43-year-old Small arrived at the showcase event for PGA Professionals with what he called a “so-so” game the past few months and a bad back that caused him fits the night before the opening round. Yet on Wednesday, he rallied on the back nine at Twin Warriors Golf Club, while those ahead of him on the leader board backed up.

He closed with a 3-under-par 68 for a one-stroke victory over third-round leader Mark Sheftic of Ambler, Pa., and 1995 National Champion Steve Schneiter of Sandy, Utah.

“I didn’t come into this week with any expectations; I’ve finished second twice and come from behind twice to win now. I guess I’ve shocked myself,” said Small, whose winning total of 7-under-par 277 earned him $75,000 from a $550,000 purse and made him one of only four players to win two or more PGA Professional National Championships.

The shock for Small wasn’t complete until Sheftic and Schneiter, playing a group behind, had missed in their bids on the 18th green to force a playoff. Small learned from PGA officials on the practice range that he was a Champion once more.

The drama back on the 18th green came in stages, while Small had warmed up by hitting a few practice balls.

Sheftic, a PGA teaching professional at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., hit an 8-iron approach just over the green and chipped just short, leaving himself with a testy a six-foot par putt. His putt ran just past the hole.

“I think my nerves got the best of me today,” said Sheftic, who was making his Championship debut. “But it felt so good to play this week and I won’t complain.”

Schneiter, a 45-year-old PGA assistant professional at Schneiter’s Pebblebrook Links in Sandy, Utah, saw his 35-foot birdie putt run two feet past the cup. It was deja vu for Schneiter, who also finished runner-up by a stroke at Twin Warriors when it hosted the 2003 National Championship.

“I had a chance, but made double [bogey] at 12, bounced back with birdies at 13 and 16, but the three-putt at 17 was the story,” he said.

Small, the lone Illinois PGA Section member to win the National Championship, has a glossy record since his debut in 2004, including a 70.79 scoring average. He finished runner-up in 2004, won in 2005, was fourth in 2006, shared second in 2007 and tied for 41st in 2008.

Small birdied the 13th and 16th holes and came to the 18th green facing a potential winning 35-foot uphill birdie putt. His putt just slipped by the left edge of the hole.

“I made a nice putt there, and that was good,” said Small, “because I didn’t hit many great putts coming in and it was nice to hit a good putt.

“I guess this came out of nowhere. I didn’t think about winning this until yesterday. I haven’t had much time to digest it yet.”

Small got the boost he needed to stabilize his round and make the title run. It came on the 584-yard 16th hole. He hit a 230-yard 4-iron approach to within 15 feet of the hole.

“I hit a great shot at 16,” said Small. “It was a quieting shot for me. It quieted me down. I didn’t hit the eagle putt well, but I ended up with a birdie. It seemed like everyone was bunched up all day out there. But in the end, in this altitude, on that course and the heat, they kind of came back to me. I guess I kind of outlasted them.”

While Small was dueling for a title against Sheftic and Schneiter, there were other sub-plots that made this Championship one of the more memorable in its 42-year history.

Lee Rinker of Jupiter, Fla.,  who hadn’t made a cut in two years after finishing third in 2006, closed with a 71 to share fourth at 279 with Craig Thomas of White Plains, N.Y., Ryan Benzel of Bothell, Wash.,  and Eric Lippert of Marina, Calif.

Tim Weinhart of Suwanee, Ga., who had vaulted to take the Championship lead midway through the round at 8 under par, wilted coming home and closed with a 70, and finished tied for eighth with Keith Dicciani of White Plains, N.Y., Grant Sturgeon of Pittsburgh, Pa., Bob Gaus of St. Louis, and Todd Lancaster of Aurora, Ohio.

Thomas and Dicciani registered a Championship rarity, coming from the same golf club to earn one of 20 berths in the 91st PGA Championship. Thomas is the PGA head professional and Dicciani an assistant at Metropolis Country Club in White Plains, N.Y. In addition, Dicciani is engaged to Thomas’ stepdaughter.

Sturgeon, however, was the story of the Championship for his gutsy comeback from an opening-round 79.

The PGA assistant professional at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, closed with a 69 for his third consecutive round in the 60s. He also made the cut on Monday night, thanks to a hole-in-one and a final-hole birdie.

“I usually hit the ball well and I played so uptight the first day like I had something to lose,” said Sturgeon, “but I had not won anything to lose yet. I fought back and am happy with how I finished.”

The PGA Professional National Championship featured 312 players representing 43 states and 41 PGA Sections.

The low 20 scorers earned a berth in the 91st PGA Championship, Aug. 13-16, at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. The final round also determined the 10 members of this year’s United States Team, which faces Great Britain & Ireland in the 24th PGA Cup, Sept. 18-20, at The Carrick in Loch Lomond, Scotland.

Established in 1968, The PGA Professional National Championship roster of Champions includes past and present Tour professionals: Sam Snead, Bob Rosburg, Don Massengale, Ed Dougherty, Larry Gilbert, Bruce Fleisher and Bob Sowards.

The PGA Professional National Championship is presented by Titleist, FootJoy and Cobra; and Club Car. Golf Channel is an exclusive media partner, and the PGA Tour is the Supporting Sponsor of PGA of America Member Championships. The 41 Section Championships and the National Championship offer a combined purse of $1.5 million.

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