Small's week at Medinah gets off to a very big start

PGA Championship week is the highlight of Mike Small's summer. (Photo: PGA of America)
PGA Championship week is the highlight of Mike Small's summer. (Photo: PGA of America)

Qualifying for the PGA Championship in his home state was a big coup for PGA Professional Mike Small, the golf coach at the University of Illinois. And his Tuesday practice round with Phil Mickelson has him more ready than ever to tee off.

By T.J. Auclair, Junior Editor

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Regardless of what happens, this is going to be a memorable week for PGA Professional Mike Small.

Small, the head golf coach at the University of Illinois, finished fourth at the 2006 PGA Professional National Championship, which gained him entry into the PGA Championship here at Medinah Country Club.

This will mark the third consecutive year the 40-year-old has qualified for the PGA Championship, however, this will be the most special as he gets to play in his home state.

"It's the highlight of my summer and probably a couple summers, so I'm looking forward to it," said Small, who resides just under three hours from Medinah, by car, in Champaign.

As if competing in a major championship on home soil wasn't special enough, Small made it all the more priceless by playing a practice round on Tuesday morning with defending champion Phil Mickelson.

How did that come about?

"I asked him on Sunday -- well, actually he walked by me and said, 'Hi, Mike, good playing lately?' He said if there's anything he can do for me, let him know," Small said. "I said, 'Well, okay? Have you got a game? I'm looking for a game.' He said, 'Sure, Tuesday morning, 7:45. ' It was that simple and that easy, and it came about and it was great.

"It was what I needed because I saw a different way to play the golf course. I saw a lot of different shots that you don't see normally," he added. "I've got a better perspective of what I need to do. From a player standpoint, it was perfect for me. And from a coaching standpoint, what could be better?"

While watching Mickelson up close in preparation for a major was an unforgettable experience, it's not as if Small can't play some golf of his own.

In fact, he entered this year's PGA Professional National Championship at the Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y., as the defending champion. He led through a portion of that event before finishing alone in fourth -- the top 20 in the National Championship receive an automatic berth into the PGA Championship.

"It was disappointing at the National Championship," Small said. "I had the lead for so long and I wanted a repeat and it didn't happen."

There was a silver lining, though.

"In the back of my mind, I knew I was coming here," he said. "Then when I played in the Western Open I got a feel for being back up here and the fans and the crowd, and then I played a practice round [at Medinah] that week, and it really started sinking in. I've really been focusing towards that. I played four straight PGA Tour events starting at the Western, and the closer it got, I can remember myself doing stuff that would be pointing towards this week, working on my game, thinking about certain things.

"I've just been looking forward to it, and obviously getting here on Sunday and seeing how the course has progressed and how they've developed it," he added. "And then a good practice round yesterday, then today was a wonderful day, and it's just peaking at the right time. I've made more cuts the last two or three years than I've missed on the Tour, and I think I'm figuring out how to peak on Thursday instead of peaking on Monday or Tuesday like I used to."

Small, who made the cut at Baltusrol last year and finished 76th, won't have to wait long to get the tournament started. He -- along with Ryan Palmer and Andres Romero -- has the first tee time Thursday. They will go off at 7:00 a.m. from the first tee.

As for expectations, Small's are high but sensible.

"I want to make the cut again. For the club pros, that's a realistic goal," he said. "And then once you make the cut, you maybe reestablish those things. I'm not really a big goal guy. I believe I can do it. I believe I can see myself playing on the weekend again, but I can't really expect it to happen.

"I can't go in here and really be overly confident and really plan on it happening. I'm not going to expect it to, but I believe I can. But that's my main goal, I think as a club pro, is to make the cut and then let it go on the weekend."

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