Illinois Head Coach Mike Small and his Indelible Connection to Kiawah

Mike Small constantly gets asked what his most memorable round of golf is.

The Illinois head men’s golf coach has a large sample to choose from, playing all over the world on different tours in big tournaments. The years, the rounds, the grind, often blur together for a golfer trying to maintain a professional status.

For Small, the answer is easy. The third round of the 2005 PGA Club Professional Championship at Kiawah Island, the site of the 2021 PGA Championship.

“To this day people ask me what my most memorable round is,” Small said. “And the answer is that third round at Kiawah.”

Small was behind after two rounds. He needed to make a significant move on Saturday to get back into contention. That happened, with a little help from the elements. The wind picked up speed. The rain came causing weather delays. As Kiawah Island flexed its punitive side, Small reveled in the challenging conditions. He posted a third-round 69, while the rest of the field was shooting over par.

“After two rounds, I needed something to happen,” Small said. “With the rain and wind coming up, I had one of the best rounds I’ve ever played. You can just tell from the scoring average that day…this golf course can be mean and it can be tough.”

Small finished the tournament at one-over-par. He sat in the pro shop, waiting to see if his posted score would hold up against the field. In the end, Small walked away with the victory, not only earning spots in big tournaments but a lifelong connection to Pete Dye’s South Carolina jewel.

“You have to be precise on Pete Dye courses,” Small said. “I just play them well.”

Small grew up in Illinois, playing numerous sports as a kid in the small town of Danville. He gravitated towards golf, citing the competitive and individual nature of the game. Small committed to the University of Illinois, where he played on the golf team alongside 2021 Team USA Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker. A big reason why Small competed on the PGA Tour and continued as a coach and club pro was because of his college golf experience.

“Playing with Steve Stricker, he made me better every day,” Small said. “Seeing what good golf actually was up close is the big reason why I played on the PGA Tour.”

When Small became a professional in 1990, the PGA Tour landscape looked different compared to now. There weren’t as many opportunities to play in the US before breaking onto the PGA Tour. Small had to play in various tours around the world before earning his PGA Tour card in 1998.

There are no guarantees once a player arrives on the PGA Tour. The grind to be physically and mentally prepared week in, week out, can be strenuous.  Small never won on the PGA Tour, with his best finish coming at the Bell Canadian Open in 1998. Going back to the Nike Tour (now Korn Ferry Tour) to try and regain PGA Tour status was a difficult task.

“You don’t have the success you want, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Small said. “You’re on the Korn Ferry Tour trying to get back to the PGA Tour, it’s not the same. I was fighting with myself and that’s why I needed a change.”

The success, the failures, the highs, the lows, all prepared Small in his current role as a college head coach.

“The game of golf owes you nothing, just because you practice a lot,” Small said. “You need courage and you need to take advantage of the opportunities when they come. What I went through back then made me a better coach today.”

Small wanted to coach and still play. The PGA of America provided him the opportunity to coach while being a touring club pro. With his mind clear, along with thousands of Illinois alums cheering him on, Small played some of his best golf as a club pro. In addition to his 2005 PGA Club Professional Championship win, he was the low club pro in the PGA Championships twice (2007, 2011).

16 years later, that week at Kiawah Island remains a highlight in Small’s career. He played in the PGA Championship in 2012, the last time the Ocean Course played host, where Rory McIlroy dominated to an eight-shot victory.

That tournament was in August, where the course was a lot softer, the conditions more humid. With the PGA Championship in May, Small believes Kiawah will be a firm and fast test for the best golfers in the world. Just like in 2005, when Small played his best golf in the most difficult conditions, the golfer who navigates the elements will be in good shape to win.

“If it’s dry and the wind blows, it’s going to be brutal,” Small said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for somebody who can play in difficult conditions.”