As Mike Small searches for 1st NCAA title, toughened Illinois takes lead at Grayhawk

As Mike Small searches for 1st NCAA title, toughened Illinois takes lead at Grayhawk
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – As a golfer growing up in Morton, Illinois, just an hour outside of the University of Illinois’ main campus in Champaign, Tommy Kuhl always dreamed of playing for Illini head coach Mike Small.

“What he’s built here,” said Kuhl, now a fifth-year senior. “He turns kids into men.”

For Kuhl, though, that progression was slow. An accomplished prep player, Kuhl stepped on campus as an immature freshman, and he bounced in and out of the lineup his first two years with the program. As a junior, he played in every event, but he still ranked fifth on the team in scoring average.

“But I started listening,” said Kuhl, a first-team All-Big Ten selection each of the past two years, and a likely first-team All-American this season. “It’s weird, you start to see the results get a lot better when you buy into what Coach Small preaches.”

That’s the magic of Mike Small.

In Small’s 23 years at the helm, he’s guided Illinois to 12 of the past 13 Big Ten titles, 14 of the past 15 NCAA Championships and seven trips to NCAA match play, including a national runner-up finish in 2013.

“You look at the history of college golf, and we’ve done a lot of things that a lot of places haven’t done,” Small said. “We just haven’t won the big one yet.”

This year marks one of Small’s best opportunities to lead Illinois to the program’s first NCAA Championship title.

The Illini entered the week as the third-ranked team in the country, according to Golfstat, and through 36 holes, they lead the 30-team field at Grayhawk as the only team under par, at 2 under. Illinois’ 7-under 273 in Saturday’s second round was the second-lowest team score ever recorded in an NCAA Championship at Grayhawk, just two shots shy of the 271 that Pepperdine posted in the final round in 2021. The Waves, of course, went on to win the national title that week.

“We’re all playing solid right now,” Kuhl said. “We have a really good driving team, and Coach would say the same. We’re not making it too hard on ourselves out there.”

Illinois’ four counters on Saturday combined for just seven bogeys. Kuhl shot 1-under 69 to move to 1 over while the Illini got a trio of 68s, shot by fifth-year seniors Adrien Dumont de Chassart (4 under) and Matthis Besard (4 over), and sophomore Jackson Buchanan (1 under).

Part of that is precision off the tee on a course that usually takes driver out of players’ hands. Another part is this squad’s toughness.

Small occasionally hears from naysayers that players can’t develop into PGA Tour-level talent in cold weather. “That’s always been something I’ve fought,” Small said. “Illinois, there’s a stigma, and I don’t know why that is.” Because Small sees things differently; in his mind, he’s teaching players to be uncomfortable, and when players are out of their comfort zone, that’s when they truly make strides, both on and off the golf course.

It’s Small jobs to identify what recruits can handle his style. Take Buchanan for example; a solid high-school player from Dacula, Georgia, but who didn’t have the credentials to catch serious looks from in-state powers Georgia and Georgia Tech. Yet, Small saw something and plucked Buchanan from the South and brought him north.

“He’s the kind of kid who when he gets immersed in our culture, he gets really good,” Small said of Buchanan. “I like kids who are coachable yet that have enough strength and confidence and ego that they can take what they’re coached and then own it themselves and not always have to be coached. A lot of kids are over-engineered, over-coached, they need to keep getting instruction. I want kids who can receive instruction, receive the tutelage, receive the experience that we have, and mix it up in a pot and then have the courage to take it themselves.”

Players such as Thomas Pieters, Thomas Detry and Nick Hardy all fit that mold, and that’s why each of them made it to the Tour. Dumont de Chassart and Kuhl could be the next ones to follow, as they are ranked Nos. 2 and 19 in PGA Tour University, Dumont de Chassart in position for full Korn Ferry Tour status and Kuhl eyeing his PGA Tour Canada card.

“Coach Small could’ve said anything and I would’ve come,” said Dumont de Chassart, who followed the long Belgian pipeline to Champaign. “The weather is not always perfect, but you learn how to play in anything. That’s why we’re pretty good in every kind of conditions, because we’ve really learned how to grind.”

With rock-hard greens that have been baked out by the 100-degree temps in the Arizona desert, players’ greens-in-regulation numbers aren’t particularly high so far, which is why it’s imperative that teams bring, along with multiple other skills, the ability to scramble.

Kuhl says one of the most uncomfortable environments that Small creates back home are these “short-game gauntlets” that can take days, sometimes weeks to complete. One such test is a five-hole short course that requires players, using certain shots and clubs, to complete the circuit.

“You’re out there grinding it out for a long time, and that just goes along with the mindset of this program,” Kuhl said. “It’s difficult, it’s not made to be easy, you get pissed out there, but you have to stay patient and just believe in yourself.”

The players certainly believe in Small, which is why one could argue that they want to win this NCAA trophy more for Small than they do themselves.

“100%,” Kuhl said of that notion. “The legacy coach has built around Illini golf, and the teams he’s had, he’s come so close, I think he deserves one. It’s obviously very hard to do, but we want to play hard for coach.”

Small, though, downplays his importance.

“It’s not like I’m 70 years old where it’s never going to happen again if we don’t win this year,” said the 57-year-old Small, before adding: “I’ve said this before, college athletics has evolved into a coaches’ game in a lot of sports. And I like to keep it a players’ game. I know I get a lot of attention because of the uniqueness of my background, and the uniqueness of what Illinois has done, and I appreciate that.

“But the way I coach the guys is it’s their game; I’m doing it for them.”

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