Illinois Coach Mike Small still beaming about Ryder Cup Rookie Thomas Pieters

Mike Small
Traci Edwards | USA Today Sports Images
Small is a three-time PGA Professional Champion and made his rookie appearance Thursday in the 28th Senior PGA Professional Championship.
Bob Denney
PGA of America

Series: PGA

Published: Thursday, November 17, 2016 | 5:08 p.m.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – It’s been nearly two months since the United States won a Ryder Cup, and University of Illinois Coach Mike Small is still beaming about someone other than a red, white and blue clad golfer.

Rather it was a certain European Ryder Cup rookie, Thomas Pieters, who delighted Small, his former college coach. Small is a three-time PGA Professional Champion who turned 50 in March and made his rookie appearance Thursday in the 28th Senior PGA Professional Championship at PGA Golf Club.

Small has no trouble expounding about Pieters, a Belgian-born star, who posted a 4-1-0 record at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. It made him the first European Ryder Cup player to earn four points in his debut. The same player who finished fourth in the Olympic Games’ first golf competition in 112 years had become a beacon for Europe despite its falling short in retaining the Ryder Cup.

FULL COVERAGE: 28th Senior PGA Professional Championship | Leaderboard

Pieters preceded his European Tour career by winning the 2012 NCAA individual title and leading the University of Illinois to two NCAA Championship trips and the 2013 Big Ten Conference Championship.

“I was a very proud coach,” said Small of his Ryder Cup visit to follow Pieters. “To go up and see the way he was accepted and brought in by the European Team as a rookie; he played a big part for them that week and played great.

“As a coach it makes you like a father, you’re happy to see your kids succeed and see them move on to bigger and better things. To see him play on that stage, before that crowd and a worldwide audience; to do like he did, being revered by his team and by his fans, it made me very proud.”

Because of Pieters’ performance, including three European Tour wins since August 2015, he has to deal with harnessing his own expectations.

“You got to stay humble, stay focused and stay hungry,” said Small, who knows something about building one’s appetite for titles.