Small, Guthrie elevate the profile of Illini golf program

This would figure to be a big week for Mike Small, the Illinois men’s coach. He’ll make his 11th appearance in a major championship when he tees off at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., in the PGA Championship on Thursday.

This is the last of golf’s four majors this season and the final tournament at which points to determine the U.S. team in next month’s Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club are awarded.

Small isn’t a factor in the Ryder Cup standings and he’s not even the Illini golfer most in the spotlight these days, however. That mantra belongs to Luke Guthrie, who came on like gangbusters after turning pro immediately after the NCAA Championships in June.

Guthrie received sponsor’s exemptions into two PGA Tour events and got into another off his showing in those. In the three events he earned $284,672. Then he was invited to the Columbus stop on the Tour and lost that title in a playoff. That strong showing got him into last week’s tourney in Omaha and he shot 62-63 in the first two rounds before finishing in a tie for third.

So, in his first five pro tournaments the 22-year old from Quincy is 64 strokes under par for 20 tournament rounds and has earned $402,272.

Small isn’t surprised, though two of his other players – Scott Langley and Thomas Pieters – were NCAA champions. Guthrie’s biggest college accomplishments were two Big Ten titles, but he also won two Illinois prep championships and one Illinois Amateur.

“He’s been the closest rival to (1988 Illini player and PGA Tour star Steve) Stricker in the last 25 years,’’ Small said of Guthrie. “He’s very tough-minded and strong-willed, and he’s getting better all the time.’’

As for Small, he isn’t going into this PGA with any momentum. He endured his worst-ever Illinois Open (tie for 26th place) last month and didn’t make the cut at the Colorado Open in his last two tournaments.

“Those were only my second and third multi-day events (of the year),’’ said Small. “I haven’t had time to play that much with the NCAAs going into June, then recruiting and camps. I need reps, but I’ve always been a coach first and a player second.’’

Small most recently gave a clinic for high school coaches at Naperville Country Club the day after the Illinois Open. His only tournament as a player after this week’s PGA will be the Illinois PGA Championship, at Stonewall Orchard in Grayslake Aug. 27-29.

Southern flavor for State Am

The Illinois State Amateur concludes Thursday at The Links at Kokopelli in Marion. That’s the southern-most location ever for 82-year old championship. Marion is 25 miles from the Kentucky line. The 1998 tourney was held at Rend Lake in Whittington. Otherwise, the championship has never been contested in southern Illinois.

This year’s tourney is short on past champions. There was only one – Bloomington’s Todd Mitchell, who won in 2002 and 2003 – among the 138 who teed off in Tuesday’s first round. He’s trying to become the event’s fourth three-time winner, following Jim Frisina (who won five times between 1942 and 1958) and Bob Zender and D.A. Points, three-time champions who became regulars on the PGA Tour.

All eight State Am winners since Mitchell turned pro, but one of those – T.C. Ford (2004) – has since regained his amateur status. Now living out of state, he recently finished sixth in the Louisiana Amateur.

The Illinois Am field will be cut to the low 30 and ties after today’s (WEDNESDAY) round, and the survivors will decide the champion in a 36-hole session on Thursday.

Here and there

Champions Tour player Chip Beck will give a clinic at Deerpath, in Lake Forest, on Sunday (AUG 12) as part of the course’s family golf event…..August will be a busy month at Libertyville’s nine-holer. The course will host a Two Clubs and Putter Challenge on Saturday (AUG 11), a Senior Open on Aug. 18 and the Libertyville Open on Aug. 25…..Brian Milligan has been named the new chief financial officer for Northbrook-based KemperSports golf management company…..The 22nd annual Children at the Crossroads Foundation Invitational has been scheduled for Sept. 10 at Chicago’s Harborside International. Proceeds will provide scholarships to The Francis Xavier Warde School.