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Competitive desire still burns for Small

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ATLANTA -- For Illinois men's golf coach Mike Small, life has always revolved around competition.

His father, Bill Small, was captain of the 1963 Illinois basketball team. His brother, Andy, won four varsity letters as a member of the Big Ten champion Illinois baseball team.

Athletic achievement runs deep in the Small family. And Mike Small is no exception: three-time winner of the PGA Professional Championship, 11-time winner of the Illinois PGA Championship and a member of the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame.

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But Small said there was never any pressure placed upon him to play sports growing up in Danville, Ill. 

"I loved it," Small said. "I was in every sport in the world early on and my parents supported me. It was just what we did.

"It was very competitive, not among ourselves as much, but against other people. And I owe my family for that."

That competitive spirit has carried Small throughout his life, all the way from winning the 1984 Junior Masters to playing at Illinois with teammate Steve Stricker, then to two victories on what was then the Nike Tour and a stay on the PGA Tour. Small joined the PGA of America when he turned professional, and remains proud of his membership.

Small said the most important lesson he tries to teach his team is how to get the most of their potential, because "the game is what wins in the end."

"I played professionally on the Tour for some time, then lost my card," Small said. "And I think what I learned more from losing my card than getting it is most valuable with these kids, and what I would have done differently. I bring a competitive aspect to it.

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"And being a part of the PGA of America does lend a lot of parts to the game — the good of the game, growth of the game — that I try to teach to these guys."

The Fighting Illini have gotten the message. After losing to Southern Cal in last year's NCAA Division I Championship semifinals, Illinois is back this fall with an experienced, veteran squad. 

"Everybody on this squad has played in a national championship final match or semifinal match at one time in their career," Small said. "I have both experience and talent. It’s been a good fall so far."

Small finished in a tie for seventh in this year's Illinois PGA Championship -- a bit of an upset, given that he had won 11 of the previous 14 editions. But don't think for a moment he's about to hang up the bag for good any time soon.

"I like to think my game is still there and I’ve got some golf left in me," Small said. "I turn 50 next spring so who knows what the next stage is.

"But that’s why I like coaching. It’s still competitive golf. It’s not outside of what I’ve done. It’s just an extension. I’m not hitting the shot but I’m still in the game with these guys and still trying to figure it out and spur them along."

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