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Sunday notebook

Two-time defending champion Mike Small credits his protégés at Illinois for keeping him sharp. Plus, John Sikes' first hole was a memorable one, Darrell Kestner’s good day could've been great, and more.

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University of Illinois golf coach Mike Small says the competitive nature of his players probably helps him in tournaments just as much as he helps them. (Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

By T.J. Auclair and John Kim, PGA.com

HERSHEY, Pa. -- Two-time defending PGA Professional National Champion Mike Small has the opportunity to do something no man has ever done this week -- collect a natural hat trick.

A win at Hershey Country Club on Wednesday would mark Small’s third consecutive PPNC title and fourth overall. Only Small and the late Larry Gilbert have won the tournament on three occasions.

So far, the University of Illinois men’s head golf coach couldn’t have asked for a better start.

Playing the West Course in perfect conditions on Sunday morning, Small fired a 5-under 67 and is just one shot off the lead.

“I’m always enthusiastic and excited to play, because I don’t play everyday like I used to anymore,” Small said. “To play in something of this magnitude is always fun, but you are a little nervous. That’s just part of it and I think that’s good.”

Last week, Luke Guthrie, a senior on Small’s Illinois golf team, set a course record with an 8-under 61 at Wannamoisett Country Club in Rumford, R.I., in the first round of the prestigious Northeast Amateur.

Guthrie said afterward that it helped having a coach like Small, who has been so successful in competitive golf. Small admitted that the competitive nature of his players probably helps him in tournaments just as much as he helps them.

“I think we feed off each other,” he said. “I think you’re a product of who you surround yourself with in whatever you do. Whatever job you do, your family, your life. We try to surround ourselves with competitive, optimistic, positive people on our team and Luke is definitely that. And I think we feed off each other. I think that’s very true.”

IT WAS ‘THAT’ GOOD: Darrell Kestner, PGA Director of Golf at Deepdale Golf Club in Manhassett, N.Y., and the 1996 winner of the PGA Professional National Championship, got off to a fine start with a 4-under 68.

After hearing him talk about the round, however, it seems that 68 probably was the worst score the 57-year-old could have possibly shot.

“It was one of my best ball-striking rounds and I’ve been playing really nicely,” Kestner said. “I usually just hit the ball so-so and putt great. Today, if my putter was hot, it could have been a 10- 12-under round. It was that good. This is the type of golf course I like.”

What Kestner likes so much about the West Course at Hershey Country Club, is that it’s a lot like his club in New York.

“This actually feels like being right at home,” he said. “The pins tucked, undulating greens, small targets, shaping the ball off the tee right-to-left and left-to-right. It’s kind of like being right home at Deepdale, especially with the undulating greens.”

HOT START: John Sikes, PGA Director of Golf at Hollytree Country Club in Tyler, Texas, knows how to start a championship.  Sikes, starting on Hole No. 1 of the East Course as part of the third group out, holed out for eagle from 100 yards out to temporarily jump to the top of the leaderboard. Sikes used a sand wedge from 100 yards on the 500-yard par 5.

"It sure was a great way to start this Championship, that's for sure," said Sikes, who is playing in just his second Championship. "I wish the rest of my round was that good. But I didn't kill myself and can still make the cut this week."
 
Sikes carded an opening round 2-over-par 73.

FAMILY AND FAMILIARITY: Bill Murchison III, a PGA Professional at Towne Lake Hills Golf Club in Woodstock, Ga., is playing in his first PGA Professional National Championship, but he’s not unfamiliar with this event or national/world championships. Murchison’s father, PGA Professional Bill Murchison II, competed in this event four times. And Murchison III was the winner of the 2008 and 2010 One Club World Championships. Murchison acquitted himself quite well with a respectable 2-over 74 on the tough East Course.

MAJOR VENUES PRESENT: This championship is about the players and their stellar play, and to some extent, the major championship venue that is Hershey Country Club. But one can’t help but be impressed by some of the other courses represented here by instructors, assistants and head professionals (among other duties) competing this week. Major championship venues represented by PGA Professionals include Pinehurst, Winged Foot, Whistling Straits, Aronimink, Bellerive and Merion. 

MARQUEE MONDAY?: The marquee group of the day very well may have been the past champions group of Ron Philo Jr. (2006 Champion), Chip Sullivan (2007 Champion) and Scott Hebert (2008 Champion).  The three players all came in with high hopes of another Walter Hagen Cup and hoped their past successes in the event, and positive momentum by playing with other past champions, would create a score-friendly atmosphere. However, the tough East Course held its own against the three as they finished a collective 8 over par. The trio will look to rebound on the West Course Monday. 

EAST IS EAST, WEST IS WEST: The East Course at Hershey Country Club played half a stroke higher in the opening round though it is a par 71 as opposed to a par 72 on the West Course. Thus, it’s not surprising that most of the leaderboard after one round came from the West Course. After Monday’s second round, the final two rounds will be played on the East Course.