Trio shares Senior Players lead, but Small is in contention, too

Anybody who follows golf in Illinois shouldn’t be surprised when Mike Small gets into contention in a tournament, but when he puts himself in position to win a major title on PGA Tour Champions, well, that’s another matter.

The Illinois men’s coach did just that on Saturday, shooting a third-round 66 at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. A fast start got Small within a shot of the lead and he remained there most of the rainy day before hitting the 54-hole stop two swings behind leaders Jeff Maggert, Bart Bryant and Scott McCarron – the tourney’s defending champion. The three leaders stand at 16-under-par 200 for 54 holes.

McCarron and Bryant posted 65s in the third round and fourth-place Vijay Singh matched Small’s 66. Small shares fifth with Bernard Langer, a three-time winner of the tournament and last year’s runner-up.

If anyone is surprised by Small’s lofty standing in the tournament, they shouldn’t be. At least Small isn’t.

“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.’’

While he’s dominated events like the Illinois PGA Championship, which he’s won a record 12 times, and Illinois Open, which he captured four times, Small’s top performances on the national stage have come at the PGA Professionals National Championship. He won that one three times, but those events are a long way from the caliber of the championship he could win on Sunday.

The Senior Players annually draws the strongest field of the five majors on PGA Tour Champions. And Small wouldn’t rule out his chances of winning.

“Who knows? I’ve got nothing to lose,’’ he said. “I’m just going to play golf tomorrow and I’m going to work on what I’ve got to work on. My golf swing has got to get better and more consistent. It leaves me sometimes, so I’ve got to work on that. If I can pay attention to that I’ll be all right.’’

Small’s game was more than “all right’’ on the front nine on Saturday. He had three birdies and an eagle en route to shooting a 31. Small finished it off with some great iron shots that set up birdies – from two feet at No. 8 and six feet at No. 9.

His play steadied after that until a bogey at the 17th dropped him two shots off the pace.

“That put a little damper on the day,’’ said Small. “Easiest tee shot of the day, and I put it in the trees.’’

Still, a player who is not a member of PGA Tour Champions – Small got into the event off three good showings in tournaments that gave him sponsor exemptions — is 18 holes away from winning one of the most prestigious titles available on the 50-and-over circuit.

Not every one of the seasoned veterans on the tour is surprised that Small is so high on the leaderboard. McCarron and Small have the same teacher, E.A. Tischler. Tischler worked with both of them this week before the tournament rounds at Exmoor.

“It’s not surprising at all for Mike Small,’’ said McCarron. “We played a practice round on Tuesday and he hit the ball really well. I’m not surprised at all that Mike Small is up there. He’s a great player, but he’s got one of the best jobs around, being a college coach. Even if he won he can’t give that up.’’

McCarron believes that this week’s good showing will benefit Small’s coaching.

“He’s always got good recruits,’’ said McCarron. “It’s amazing up at Illinois, which is not a great place in the winter. He recruits very well, and he’s got a great program there. I’m sure this will help.’’

Because of the threat of inclement weather Saturday’s round was played in threesomes starting off both the Nos. 1 and 10 tees. That won’t be the case today. First tee time is 7:55 a.m. and play will be in twosomes. Small and Langer will be paired for the second straight day, starting at 1:45 p.m. Singh and Maggert follow at 1:55 and McCarron and Bryant are last off at 2:05. It’ll mark the fifth straight year that the defending champion plays in the last group of the final round.