Small walks his way to 12th Illinois PGA title

Mike Small, the very successful men’s golf coach at the University of Illinois, won another Illinois PGA Championship on Wednesday. So what else is new?

Actually Small’s record 12th victory in the 94th playing of the tournament wasn’t like any of the others except for the fact that it came on the South Course at Olympia Fields Country Club. Small, an honorary member at the south suburban private facility, has won the premier event for the state’s club professionals there three times. His 12 overall victories have come in just a 14-year span.

No. 12, though, had some unusual twists. It was the first time since the 1950s that the IPGA Championship was an all-walking tournament. Power carts weren’t prevalent back then, and most players have used them in the competition since at least the 1970s.

Carts weren’t allowed for any of the three rounds this week because heavy rains – 10 inches fell in the two weeks before the IPGA arrived – left the fairways too soft and necessitated the use of the lift, clean and place rule all three days.

The decision to ban power carts was made on Sunday night, and that created a last-minute demand for caddies for Monday’s first round. Almost half of the 137 entrants used bag-toters recruited by Olympia caddie master Jim Salvatore. Only two players withdrew after the walking-only rule was invoked.

Adding to the unusual nature of a walking-only tournament was the fact that the IPGA Championship’s main sponsor over the last 14 years, Nadler Golf Cars, is a provider of power carts.

And that wasn’t the only strange twist to the event. This Small victory was due as much to the collapse of playing partner Curtis Malm as it was to Small’s play.

“I was never in this one until the last few holes,’’ admitted Small, who opened with a 71 on Monday before finishing 67-68. His 10-under-par 206 score for the 54 holes resulted a two-stroke victory.

Malm, the head professional at White Eagle in Naperville, led most of the way. He took a one-stroke lead over playing partner Travis Johns, the Medinah teaching pro, into the final round with Small another stroke back.

Small didn’t make his presence felt until the 361-yard sixth hole, when he put a 3-iron shot from 203 yards to within a foot of the cup, setting up his first birdie. Then it became a two-man battle with Small not getting sole possession of the lead until Malm three-putted for bogey at No. 16. Prior to that Small needed birdies at Nos. 14 and 15 just to hang with Malm.

And then came the par-4 seventeenth. Malm, reeling from the missed three-footer that knocked him out of the lead, sent his drive far right into thick brush. He lined up to play the shot from there, but his hand got caught in a vine on a practice backswing.

“I wanted to see if there would be any resistance,’’ said Malm, who wound up with scratches on the back of his hand. “After that it was an easy call to take an unplayable.’’

That wouldn’t be the only penalty shot he’d take on that hole. Hitting three, his next shot hit a tree and went back in the brush. That necessitated another penalty stroke and Malm wound up with a triple bogey seven. Instead of contending, he was now in third place behind – Johns moved into second — three shots behind Small with just one hole to go.

“Curtis played great. I feel bad for him,’’ said Small. “But that’s momentum. There’s momentum in golf. We talk to our team about that all the time.’’

Malm battled back to make birdie on the finishing hole, and that put him in a three-way tie for second with Johns and Brian Brodell, the teaching pro at Mistwood in Romeoville. It was Malm’s third runner-up finish in the IPGA Championship in the last five years.

Small took $11,200 from the tournament’s $71,019 purse – both significant increases from a year ago.