In Mike Small’s world, where few PGA Professionals have walked, his most formidable opponent may be himself. The University of Illinois men’s coach rallied from a near disastrous start in the final round of the 43rd PGA Professional National Championship, June 30, at French Lick (Ind.) Resort, knocking home three birdies in his final five holes for a 1-over-par 73.

That crucial run on The Pete Dye Course sealed a three-stroke victory at 8- under-par 278 over longtime friend Sonny Skinner of Sylvester, Ga., earning him $75,000, and a piece of history with a re- cord-tying third National Championship.

“It feels good to finish it off,” said Small, whose previous titles in 2005 and last year allowed him to catch the late Larry Gilbert of Lexington, Ky., a winner in 1981, ‘82 and ‘91. “I was leaking oil for most of the day. Standing on the 12th tee (at 4-over-par) was a tough thing to do. But, I got through. I had a talk with myself. I was thinking about my golf swing too much. I had to get my mind off that. I got a little mad.”

It was the momentum Small needed to join Gilbert and Roger Watson (1974, ‘75) as the only back-to-back Champions.

“Having won it twice before, having made the cut in the PGA Championship twice, finishing 17th in the Mayacoba Classic earlier in the year (a PGA Tour event), I knew I was not chasing a pipe dream. But I still had to do it,” said Small. “If I went down, I thought, I would go down swinging.”

The 44-year-old from Champaign, Ill., who had blitzed the field after 54 holes with a competitive course record 65 to build a four-stroke cushion, arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and immediately searched for answers. He began sliding fast to 4-over-par through 11 holes.

Small reached down to find some of the previous day’s magic with birdies at 14, 16 and 17, holding Skinner, who closed with a third straight 1-under-par 71.

“My golf swing was not very good,” said Small. “I was struggling to find it. Finally, I said to myself to forget it and play from strength, to play to targets and not worry about the golf swing so much. I hit some shots way off line. I had to look for targets.”
Skinner, a PGA teaching professional at River Pointe Golf Club in Albany, Ga., and a runner-up in 2008, caught Small with a birdie at 15, only to fail to get up and down from a bunker for par at the treacherous 16th hole, which ended his title bid.

“I tried; I really did,” said Skinner. “Mike is one tough cookie. He’s so hard to beat, and he proved again he has what it takes to hold on and be a Champion.”
Mark Sheftic of Blue Bell, Pa, who tied for second in 2009, finished third with a 283 after a 70. Danny Balin of Greenwich, Conn., a 28-year-old former soccer player and a first-time competitor, was alone in fourth at 284 after a 75.

The 43rd PGA Professional National Championship, conducted over The Donald Ross Course and The Pete Dye Course, featured a $550,000 purse and was presented by Titleist, FootJoy; and Club Car. The Championship, which originated in 1968, featured PGA Professionals representing 43 states and 41 PGA Sections.

Small is the only Illinois PGA Section member to win the National Championship, and added to his legacy by once again overcoming the field on a Pete Dye-designed course. His 2005 title came at The Ocean Course in Kiawah, Is- land, S.C., which Dye opened in 1991. He accomplished his latest feat while nursing a chronic inflamed disc in his back and tendinitis in his right elbow, the after effect of a freak injury seven years earlier which required the implantation of nine metal screws.

Small had received treatment during the week from a doctor in Bedford, Ind., before returning to the course.

“The first five of six holes today were set up brutal, the pin positions were so tough,” said Small, “I made a birdie at 6, but it really didn’t calm me down. The fact that nobody was making a run at me was a blessing.”

What Small didn’t learn until after his round was that Skinner had birdied
5, and produced a temporary deadlock at 5-under-par. “I was just trying to survive,” said Small, who took only 22 putts in his third round, but needed 36 in the final 18 holes. His seemingly insurmountable four- stroke lead after the third round dwindled with bogeys at 1, 3, 4, 9 and 11.

Small’s decline was capped at the downhill 428-yard 11th hole, where he drove into deep rough left of the green and failed to reach the putting surface. He then chipped six feet past the flagstick and missed his par putt.

Small said that he temporarily thought of the 2006 National Champion- ship, when he let a lead in the final round slip away and finished fourth at Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y.

“It looked like it was happening, but I didn’t want it to happen and I was able to turn it around,” said Small. “To come here and play against these guys and for records is truly special.”

Small sealed his victory with the birdie binge, highlighted by his perform- ance at 16, a 216-yard hole over water with a hole cut on the upper right-hand quadrant.
Small used a 3-iron that covered the flag, rolling to within three feet of the flagstick.

“I cut a 3-iron in there and hit it to the right place and got the break,” said Small. “I tell my players if you work hard you deserve those breaks, and I got one.”

Small leads a contingent of 20 players into the 92nd PGA Championship, Aug. 9-15, at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis. It will be Small’s sixth PGA trip and what he says is “a chance for revenge” after missing the cut in 2004 at the Straits, yet another Pete Dye designed course.
Like his two previous National Championship triumphs, Small made a cell phone call after signing his scorecard to his wife, Ann, who had returned home.