Small will compete in Senior Players while 2 ex-Illini stars are in JDC

It isn’t that Mike Small hasn’t gotten into big golf tournaments before. The super successful men’s coach at the University of Illinois has remained a competitive player in large part by taking advantage of sponsor’s exemptions.

Small didn’t get an invitation to this week’s Constellation Senior Players Championship, which tees off at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park on Thursday, however. It’s the third of the season’s five major events on PGA Tour Champions, and the only way Small could get into the field was by making it into the top 70 on the circuit’s Charles Schwab Cup money list.

“This is real special because you have to qualify to get in,’’ said Small. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to play. Majors are always something you get up for….majors are different.’’

So, at the same time that Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy – the stars of Small’s Illini teams of the last four seasons – are playing in the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic in downstate Silvis, Ill., on sponsor exemptions the coach will be part of the strongest field of the season on the 50-and-over tour.

Small made it off his performances in three tournaments in which he received sponsor invites. He used those three starts to earn $103,895. That moved him to No. 68 on the Schwab Cup money list.

“I knew I had to have a top 10 finish in Wisconsin (the American Family Insurance Classic in Madison) to make the field,’’ said Small.

He barely made it thanks to a tie for 10th in a tournament organized by Steve Stricker that ended on June 24. Small and Stricker were teammates on Illini teams in the 1980s.

Two weeks before his strong finish in Wisconsin Small tied for ninth in the Principal Charity Classic in Iowa and he also had a tie for 24th in the Cologuard Classic in Arizona in March. Small learned that his spot in the Senior Players field was official while he was on the Exmoor course over the weekend.

“It’s always fun to play in front of Chicago fans,’’ said Small. “I played in the Western Open many times when it was at Cog Hill, and being at Exmoor is going to be a semi-home game for me. We have a lot of Illinois alumni and friends who are members at Exmoor. I’m excited to go up there to compete.’’

Vince Pellegrino, vice president of tournaments for the Western Golf Association – the manager of this Senior Players event, is excited, too.

“Mike’s well-known and respected throughout the Midwest, and we expect his presence to add an extra energy level and excitement to the championship,’’ said Pellegrino.

Interestingly, Stricker – one of the top players on PGA Tour Champions – will skip this major to compete in the John Deere Classic instead. He’s a three-time winner of that event. Davis Love III, who is also eligible to compete on the 50-and-over circuit, will also play in the JDC, in part because that tournament gave a sponsor’s exemption to his son Dru.

The Western Golf Association had planned to hold its Western Amateur championship at Exmoor this year, but the club campaigned for the senior major over two years ago and was successful. So, the Western Amateur will tee off later this month at Sunset Ridge, in Northfield, and Exmoor will serve as that tournament’s host at a later date.

Exmoor is one of Chicago’s most historic golf venues. The club was founded in 1896 and is the third oldest in Illinois behind Wheaton’s Chicago Golf Club (1893) and Lake Forest’s Onwentsia (1895). Chicago Golf Club will host the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open at the same time the Constellation Senior Players Championship is in progress.

Charles Blair Macdonald, founder of Chicago Golf Club, also designed Exmoor’s original nine-hole course. Donald Ross turned it into an 18-hole course in 1915 and architect Ron Prichard completed a renovation of the course in 2003.

Forty-one of the 78 players in this week’s field were expected to check in on Monday and the rest can practice on the course on Tuesday. Gates open to the public for Wednesday’s pro-am before four days of tournament play begin on Thursday.