Mike Small is playing an ever-larger part in the annals of the PGA Professional National Championship. (Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)
Wednesday Notebook: Small revels in his new place in PPNC history
Mike Small's record-tying performance is still sinking in. Plus, Stu Ingraham made some National Championship history of his own this week, Jason Schmuhl saved his best for last, and more.
By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
FRENCH LICK, Ind. (PGA.com) -- After four grueling days at the French Lick Resort and the 43rd PGA Professional National Championship, University of Illinois men’s head golf coach Mike Small hoisted the coveted Walter Hagen Cup on Wednesday evening for the third time – and the second time in as many years.
Small put together a four-round total of 8-under 278 for a three-shot victory over runner up Sonny Skinner and, in the process, joined the late Larry Gilbert as the only three-time winner of the National Championship.
“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but it feels good to finish it off,” said Small. “I was leaking oil for most of the day.”
Indeed he was. Small stumbled out of the gates with four bogeys and one birdie on the front nine. His four-shot advantage to start the day dwindled quickly and before he knew it, Small found himself tied for the lead with a hard-charging Skinner.
Small buckled down, however, and thanks to key birdies on three of his final five holes, the 44-year old walked off with a comfortable victory, a new Rolex watch, a $75,000 winner’s check and will lead the top 20 finishers to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in August.
“It’s great going to No. 18 knowing that you can make a 7 and still do it,” Small said. “That’s why you play 18 holes. You never know until the end. I was disappointed by the way I started, but luckily the course was set up real tough. The pins were so difficult I thought. The first five or six holes were brutal.”
This has been a remarkable season for Small. Along with his latest accomplishment on the course, he also coached his Illini team to its second consecutive and ninth overall Big 10 Championship.
Scott Langley, a member of the Illini squad, went on to win the NCAA Championship and finished as the low amateur in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
For his part, this was the fifth time Small has finished in the top 2 in seven National Championship appearances.
“It’s pretty cool to be one of two people to have won this three times,” Small said. “I aspired to be a Tour professional. I got on Tour and probably played 60 Tour events in my life and probably wasn’t good enough to play those at that time in my life.
"To come here and have an opportunity to play against these names and these people and the records is an opportunity that I’m grateful for. Maybe that’s why I play it so well. I’m grateful for this opportunity to play for this money, the records and the awards. This is a big deal to me.”
THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM: The National Championship provides the ultimate tournament within a tournament as the top 20 finishers earn a berth into the PGA Championship.
Only 20 players can make it. If there’s a tie for that 20th spot, there’s a playoff. For a while on Wednesday, it looked like eight players would be playing off for seven spots. Their fate lied in the hands of Jeff Sorenson, a 31-year-old PGA Teaching Professional from Columbia Golf Club in Minneapolis, Minn.
Sorenson made crushing bogeys on Nos. 15-17 and needed a last-minute birdie on the par-5 18th hole to make the playoff happen.
He missed his birdie putt, settled for par and a final round total of 7-over 79. That put him at 4-over total and one shot out of a potential PGA Championship spot.
“You’re definitely thinking about the PGA Championship,” offered a gracious Sorenson. “I really wasn’t thinking about it most of the time, because I felt like I was inside the number. But then I three-putted 15. On No. 16, bogey was a good score. After that, I hit a good putt on No. 17 and it just broke off the Earth.
"On 18, I put myself in a tough spot. I went for it in two and I probably should have thought about a different strategy. I should have laid up maybe. Instead, I stuck it in the bunker and an easy birdie turned into a tough par.”
Regardless of the unraveling at the end, Sorenson left French Lick with a great attitude.
“I learned a lot this week,” he said. “I learned that I have what it takes to play at this high level with these great PGA pros.”
MAN ON THE MOVE: Jason Schmuhl saved his best for last.
Schmuhl, a 38-year-old from Windsor, Calif., and the PGA Head Professional at Windsor Golf Club, was one of the early final-round starters. He needed to go low in order to have any chance of sneaking into the top 20 and earning a spot in his first PGA Championship.
That’s exactly what he did too. Schmuhl fired one of only two rounds in the 60s on Wednesday – a 3-under 69 – to tie for 15th and make it to Whistling Straits on the number.
“I had positive expectations coming into the week,” Schmuhl said. “I thought I had a chance to possibly win it if I was making some putts and hitting it straight. But, with Mike Small out there shooting a 65 – he’s just a little bit better than the rest of us.”
And the key to Wednesday’s great play?
“I was just hitting it long,” he said. “I was killing it today. On 16, the par 3, I made bogey. I had to get up and down for bogey. It was 230 yards, I hit a 5 iron and I flew the green. On the par 5 No. 14, I hit driver, 7-iron to 12 feet up the hill. I was hitting short clubs in all day because I was finally hitting the fairway with the driver, which I hadn’t been doing all week.”
GETTING IT DONE AT HOME: There are 20 happy guys leaving French Lick. Aside from champion Mike Small, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy happier than Keith Ohr.
Ohr, who missed the cut in two prior National Championship appearances, was extra excited about this one. The 35-year-old PGA Head Professional from Wildwood Country Club in Louisville, Ky., lives just a little over an hour away from French Lick.
With loads of family, friends and members out to support him in the final round, Ohr poked it around to the tune of a 3-over 75 on a very difficult day. Thanks to his stellar play earlier in the week, that equaled a tie for seventh and his very first trip to the PGA Championship.
“It’s fun for me, but more than anything else, this is fun for my members at Wildwood Country Club and my family that watched me play,” Ohr said. “To get a chance to play in a National Championship, it’s amazing. Now to be able to play at Whistling Straits? That’s even more amazing and I’m really looking forward to it.”
LIFE AT 50: This week marked the 20th time that 50-year-old Stu Ingraham has participated in the PGA Professional National Championship.
When the dust settled after four brutal rounds in French Lick, it also marked the sixth time the PGA Head Professional at M Golf Range & Learning Center in Newtown Square, Pa., will tee it up in the PGA Championship.
Ingraham overcame a rocky bogey-bogey start to shoot a 3-over 75 on Wednesday. That put him in a tie for ninth at 3 over, and proved to be the third best finish in his illustrious National Championship career.
“It feels great,” said an emotional Ingraham. “I’m 50 years old and this is my 20th National Championship. This will be my sixth PGA Championship and I’ve been on two PGA Cup teams. I’ve crossed this road probably more than anyone else here, maybe except for Bill Schumaker, but it feels good. I didn’t know what to expect this week. I knew it was a hard course. My back bothered me the last two days, but I hung in there. I didn’t have that fluid working so to speak, but I hung in there and I’m very happy to be going back to a major championship.”