The Illinois PGA Championship has been Mike Small’s personal playground for nearly two decades and there’s no reason to think that the 96th playing of the tournament this month at Stonewall Orchard in Grayslake should be any different.
The University of Illinois men’s coach has won the IPGA title a record 12 times, his first coming in 2001 and his last in 2016. The tournament has had 19 other multiple winners, but none have come close to Small’s dozen.
Johnny Revolta, the long-time Evanston Golf Club head pro and winner of the 1935 PGA Championship, took six titles from 1936-47. Bill Ogden, the section’s dominant player when he ran the shop at North Shore Country Club, was a five-time winner from 1953-72. Recently retired Gary Groh, who did his time at Bob O’Link in Highland Park and was inducted into the Illinois Golf Hall of Fame last year, captured four titles between 1983-2002.
Jim Foulis, part of the Foulis clan that played big roles at Chicago Golf Club, Olympia Fields and Hinsdale in the earlier years of Chicago golf, also had four wins in the IPGA Championship but Groh was the only one of those four to go head-to-head with Small.
Small won his first IPGA title in 2001 at Kemper Lakes, Groh beat him in a playoff the next year on the same course and Small then ran off eight championships in a row. He also won four more times in the last seven years, and he’ll be coming off one of his best summers of tournament play when the 54-hole shootout returns from Aug. 27-29.
Thanks to sponsor exemptions, Small had no trouble getting into PGA Tour Champions tournaments and took advantage of his invitations. Thanks to two top-10 finishes he squeezed into the top 70 on PGA Tour Champions’ Charles Schwab Cup money list and that got him into one of the 50-and-over circuit’s major events – the Constellation Senor Players Championship at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park.
Small needed to hole a chip shot on his last hole of a tournament in Madison, Wis., to crack the Senior Players field. Once in, he earned a share of the first round lead and stayed in contention most of the way before finishing in a tie for 10th place. That earned him his biggest paycheck as a tournament player — $67,200. (His previous best was $57,200 for a tie for ninth in the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open in 1998).
The Senior Players concluded on July 15, and Small has a big August as well. He has a spot in one more PGA Tour Champions event – the 3M tournament in Minnesota Aug. 3-5. Then he’ll bid for a record-tying fifth win in the Illinois Open Aug. 6-8 at The Glen Club and Ravinia Green and wrap up his tournament season in the IPGA Championship. It ends on the day classes resume at the University of Illinois.
When the last putt drops at The Glen Small will go back to his day job, as coach of the powerhouse Illini men’s team that will be reloading following the graduations of stars Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy.
Despite his summer successes Small has no goals as far as tournament play goes.
“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.’’
Small was certainly competitive over the last four months. He posted two 66s at Exmoor in his run at the Senior Players title and wasn’t surprised by his lofty status there. He fell t that it all boiled down to getting more chances to compete.
“The last few years I haven’t done that much,’’ said Small. “I’d play one week, then have two or three off, then play another one. This year I’m playing three, four weeks in a row. I don’t usually do that. Ever, really.’’
He went into the last round at Exmoor with the attitude that “I’ve got nothing to lose.’’
“My golf swing has got to get better and more consistent. It leaves me sometimes, so I’ve got to work on that,’’ said Small, and that mindset will be the same whether he’s playing against the best on the PGA Tour Champions or the best in the Illinois PGA.
Small has won five of his IPGA titles at Stonewall – in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2014.
Though it might not seem like it, Small doesn’t win the Illinois PGA Championship every time. His run of eight titles in a row was snapped by Frank Hohenadel, now the head professional at Mistwood in Romeoville, in 2011 on Medinah’s No. 1 course. Steve Orrick, of Country Club of Decatur, was the winner at Stonewall the following year before Small bounced back to win three of the next four years.
Jim Billiter, now the head pro at Kemper Lakes, beat him in a return to Medinah in 2015 and Indian Hill assistant Adam Schumacher was the winner when the tourney returned to Medinah last year. Small tied for sixth in that one.
Over the years there have been six players who finished second to Small in the IPGA Championship on more than one occasion. Fresh Meadows’ Roy Biancalana, back in the section this year after taking a break from golf altogether, was a runner-up in 2003, 2004 and 2007. Cantigny’s Connie DeMattia was second in 2004 and 2005. Orrick, in addition to his victory, was a runner-up in 2008 and 2014 and Medinah’s Travis Johns was a runner-up in 2010, 2013 and 2016. They’ll all be ready to do battle with Small again.
August will also go a long way in determine the IPGA Player of the Year. Only one of the four major titles have been conducted so far, Skokie’s Garrett Chaussard winning the Match Play title at Kemper Lakes in May. Two more, the Illinois Open and IPGA Championship, will be held in August.