Illini coach Small shares first-round lead at Senior Players tourney

Illinois coach Mike Small started Friday’s second round of the Constellation Senior Players Championship in a tie for the lead and then made birdies on his first two holes. The good times didn’t last for long, however.

Small dropped back after that and finished with a 71. That didn’t knock him out of contention going into the weekend rounds at Exmoor Country Club, but the focus shifted – for awhile at least – to how his Illini stars of the last four seasons are doing in their first two months as touring pros.

Dylan Meyer earned over $200,000 in his first two starts and Nick Hardy made the cut in all four of his tournaments. Both will play on the weekend at the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic after getting into the field on sponsor exemptions.

“Dylan is one of the most talented players I’ve ever coached and Nick is probably the biggest grinder and the most competitive player I’ve ever coached,’’ said Small, “so between those two guys they’ve got a good future.’’

Meyer was in Champaign last weekend and worked with Small on his putting before heading to the John Deere.

“I watched them (on TV) last night and keep tabs on the guys. They know that,’’ said Small. “We keep in touch.’’

As for his own playing future at least Small is having no trouble getting into tournaments. He is playing at Exmoor because he squeezed into the top 70 on PGA Tour Champions’ Charles Schwab Cup money list. He needed to hole a chip shot on his last hole in his last tournament in Madison, Wis., to do it.

That got him into the major at Exmoor and – because he was a top-10 finisher in Madison – he can also play in the 3M tournament in Minnesota after that.

Then comes the Illinois Open, which Small has won four times, and the Illinois PGA Championship, which Small has won a record 12 times. The Illinois PGA Championship ends on the day classes resume in Champaign. After that Small’s strictly a coach again, but he believes his tournament play now helps his recruiting.

“I’m going out to the U.S. Junior next week for three days,’’ he said. “What better conversation piece for recruits than this: I played with Bernhard (Langer) the Saturday of the tournament in Wisconsin, and that was a great learning experience for me. What better way for a coach to still be learning, still growing?’’

As far as playing goes he has no goals.

“If I still have fun doing it, if I still get nervous and still get a little anxiety, that’s good,’’ he said. “I’ve had a heckuva run. Golf has been very good to me. If I can do this for three or four more years and still be competitive I’ll do it. If I’m not competitive I won’t.’’