By Bob Denney, Senior Writer, PGA of America
FRENCH LICK, Ind. – In Mike Small’s world, where few PGA Professionals have walked, his most formidable opponent may be himself.
The University of Illinois men’s golf coach rallied from a near-disastrous start in the final round of the 43rd PGA Professional National Championship Wednesday at French Lick Resort, knocking home three birdies in his final five holes for a 1-over-par 73.
It was good enough to seal a three-stroke victory at 8-under-par 278 over longtime friend Sonny Skinner of Sylvester, Ga., earning $75,000, a piece of history with a record-tying third National Championship.
“It feels good to finish it off,” said Small, whose previous titles in 2005 and last year allowed him to catch the late Larry Gilbert of Lexington, Ky., a winner in 1981, ’82 and ’91. “I was leaking oil for most of the day. Standing on the 12th tee (at 4 over par) was a tough thing to do. But I got through. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.
“It’s nice going the 18th tee and knowing that you can make a 7 and can still do it.”
The 44-year-old from Champaign, Ill., who blitzed the field after 54 holes with a competitive course record 65 to build a four-stroke cushion, arrived at the Pete Dye Course and immediately searched for answers to calm him after sliding to 5 over par through 11 holes.
He reached down to find some of the previous day’s magic with birdies at 14, 16 and 17, holding Skinner, who closed with a third straight 1-under-par 71.
“My golf swing was not very good today,” said Small. “I was struggling to find it. Finally, I said to myself to forget it and play from strength, to play to targets and not worry about the golf swing so much. I hit some shots way off line. I had to look for targets.”
Skinner, a PGA teaching professional at River Pointe Golf Club in Albany, Ga., and a runner-up in 2008, caught Small with a birdie at 15, only to fail to get up and down from a bunker for par at the treacherous 16th hole, which ended his title bid.
“I tried; I really did,” said Skinner. “Mike is one tough cookie. He’s so hard to beat, and he proved again he has what it takes to hold on and be a Champion.”
Mark Sheftic of Blue Bell, Pa, who tied for second a year ago, finished third with a 283 after a 70. Danny Balin, a 28-year-old first-time competitor from Greenwich, Conn., was alone in fourth at 284 after a 75.
Small is the only Illinois PGA Section member to win the National Championship, and added to his legacy by once again overcoming the field on a Pete Dye-designed course. His 2005 title came at The Ocean Course in Kiawah, Island, S.C., which Dye opened in 1991.
“The first five of six holes were set up brutal,” said Small, “so luckily no one was making a run at me.”
What Small didn’t realize was that Skinner had birdied 15, which produced a temporary deadlock.
“I was just trying to survive,” said Small, who needed 23 putts on Tuesday and saw his lead dwindle with bogeys at 1, 3, 4, 9 and 11. Though a birdie at 6 temporarily righted him, Small was still off target.
He drove into heavy rough left on the downhill 428-yard 11th and failed to reach the green, then chipped six feet past the flagstick and missed his par putt.
Small sealed his victory with the birdie binge, highlighted by his performance at 16, a 216-yard hole over water with a hole cut on the upper right-hand quadrant.
Small used a 3-iron that covered the flag, rolling to within three feet of the flagstick.
“I cut a 3-iron in there and hit it to the right place and got the break,” said Small. “I tell my players if you work hard you deserve those breaks, and I got one.”
Small said that he temporarily thought of the 2006 National Championship, when he let a lead in the final round slip away and finished fourth at Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y.
“It looked like it was happening, but I didn’t want it to happen and I was able to turn it around,” said Small. “To come here and play against these guys and for records is truly special.”
Small leads a contingent of 20 players into the 92nd PGA Championship, Aug. 9-15, in Kohler, Wis. It will be Small’s sixth PGA trip and what he says is “a chance for revenge” after missing the cut in 2004 at the Straits, yet another Pete Dye-designed course.
Like his two previous National Championship triumphs, Small made a cell phone call after signing his scorecard to his wife, Ann, who had returned home to Champaign to be with the couple’s two sons.
“They were here in spirit,” said Small with a grin. “It’s become sort of tradition of me calling them to let them know how things went.”
The 43rd PGA Professional National Championship featured a $550,000 purse and was presented by Titleist, FootJoy; and Club Car.
The PGA Professional National Championship, which originated in 1968, featured PGA Professionals representing 43 states and 41 PGA Sections.
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