ATLANTA — In his time as the head coach of Illinois men’s golf team, Mike Small has become quite familiar with East Lake Golf Club. The Illini have secured an invite to the relatively new East Lake Cup each of the tournament’s three years of existence, and took home the match play trophy in 2015 and 2016.
RELATED: What is the East Lake Cup?
Tuesday morning, we caught up with Small to talk about coaching at his alma mater and his own professional golf career:
What is it like coming back to coach for your alma mater?
"Oh, it’s special. When I took this job 17 years ago, I don’t know if I would have taken this job and stopped playing on the Tour if somebody else had come and asked me to coach. Probably wouldn’t have done it. I’ve had opportunities to go elsewhere over the years. They’re flattering opportunities and it’s been kinda fun to look at them, but when it comes down to decision time, me and my family, who are all Illinois grads, it never really happens. It still means a lot, and now I have a long-term contract with them and it’s great. It’s where I wanted to be at the start, and it’s where I still want to be."
Is there any difference dealing with the emotions as a player and as a coach?
"I do a pretty good job as a coach of taking my emotions and disconnecting them personally from the job. It’s hard sometimes, but I get more nervous sometimes watching football and basketball games than I do the golf because I’m into it. I know what’s going on. I’m more of a fan for those, but this is more of, it’s not a job per se, but it’s my life, it’s my lifestyle. I approach this more from a business part than from football and basketball I approach it as a fan."
What’s it like watching former Illinois player Thomas Pieters, who had a strong Ryder Cup showing last year?
"I went to the Ryder Cup last year and he had me up for the whole week inside the ropes and hanging out with him. I was a proud father, if you will. A proud coach, in reality, to see him realize his dreams."
What lessons have you taken from your own playing career that help you coach Illinois?
"A lot of the way I coach, a huge percentage of it is based on what I learned as a PGA Tour professional, what I learned playing with the best players in the world, what I learned from failures almost more than the successes. If I knew what I know now then when I was playing, I might still be on the Tour. I’ve learned a lot over the years. The mistakes I made when I lost my card on the PGA tour, I do not let my guys on the team make those same mistakes. That’s why they can get better, because they have a coach that has made mistakes in the past and I don’t let them do it."
Which professional events are you planning on playing this year?
"I played three PGA Champions Tour events last year plus the PGA Championship, I’m going to try to do that same stuff again this summer. My window of playing is very short. It becomes shorter and shorter every year. But I hope to play in three or four Champions Tour events and then try to get in another PGA Championship. "