PMP 2024: Mike Small

PMP 2024: Mike Small

I'm going to gather all of the Pick My Post articles in one section here. So if you scroll down, you'll see everything tagged with PMP24 as part of the next section. Those will all be free (unlocked) articles because they're part of the fundraiser, so if you're not a subscriber, you can still read all of those articles in that section.

On to the next question from a donor to the scholarship fund:

Why is Mike Small so wonderful? What’s his magic?

~John S.

I'm going to answer this one with a lot more "here's what I think" and a lot less "here's what the statistics say." We know (and have discussed) those things, from recruiting in Europe, specifically Belgium, to building a consistent cycle of upperclassman leaders who then hand the reins to whoever is next. I've been through a lot of that in previous articles.

Instead, since the question here is "what's his magic?", I'll focus on where I think he's found the magic. Three things, in my mind:

He Looks For Athletes

It's not just Belgium. When recruiting, I've always been fascinated by Mike Small looking for junior golfers with athletic backgrounds. Ideally, I think he'd love for every recruit to be a three-sport star with golf as their spring sport in high school. He loves athleticism.

When interviewing Small about current junior Jackson Buchanan a few years ago, one of the first things he noted to me was that Buchanan's dad played baseball in college. When talking about current freshman Ethan Wilson, Small noted that both of his parents were on the Olympic ski team in Canada. He loves athletic pedigree.

You know how half of Iowa football's recruits the last 25 years have been "just give us the most athletic kid at the high school - the one who was the best player on the football, basketball, and baseball team"? I can even give you a personal example since current Detroit Lions tight end Sam LaPorta went to my high school. He was that kid who was great at every sport (especially football and basketball) and Iowa found him when he was choosing between his two offers from Bowling Green and Central Michigan after his senior football season. An afterthought recruit for most (and a kid who camped at Illinois but didn't get an offer), but there's Iowa doing the Iowa thing again, landing the best athlete (a high school wide receiver) and turning him into the tight end who was a finalist for Offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL this past season.

It's that, but for golf.

I'm not saying he's looking for multi-sport stars. With the way junior golf works these days, it's extremely rare that a kid would even play another sport. But Small wants that type of recruit. He wants to see athleticism in the golf swing.

If you're a golfer, you can probably point to that guy you know. You'd played golf for several years in high school or college and then the kid who was the quarterback and point guard picks up a club and says "do you swing it like this?" and beats you on the very first nine he ever plays. Steph Curry, Tony Romo, and Mario Lemieux also being ridiculously good at golf? That's Mike Small's recruiting focus.

He Acknowledges The Brutality Of Golf

Golf is about finding it and losing it and then finding it again.

The best basketball example I can think of is Da'Monte Williams shooting .283 from three in 2020, then .547 in 2021, and then .325 in 2022. I know that there are basketball reasons for that – put simply, Ayo + Kofi got Da'Monte a ridiculous number of wide open threes in 2021 – but that's the concept I'm talking about. It's not there, and then it's there, and then it's not there. It's rare in other sports and happens all the time in golf.

Let's use an Ohio State golfer as the example here. Maxwell Moldovan is a senior at Ohio State. He's been their best golfer the last three years (even as a freshman). A two-time All American in 2022 and 2023. In this, his senior season, he was primed to make a run in the PGA Tour University rankings. A quick refresher on that.

As an incentive for the best golfers to stay in college golf, the PGA Tour University rankings were established four years ago. They allow for the players to advance towards getting their tour card while playing college golf, not just "if you graduate early, get some sponsor's exemptions, and do well in these tournaments, maybe you can get your card earlier rather than later."

The top player in the PGA Tour U rankings goes right to the PGA Tour (last year it was Ludvig Åberg), finishers 2-5 get full status on the Korn Ferry Tour (which ADdC used last year to then get his PGA Tour card after a great summer of golf), and the players finishing 6-10 get conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour (which gets you into some, not all, of the KFT events where you can earn points towards promotion). Spots 11 through 25 then get status on the "PGA Tour Americas" tours and exemptions into certain levels of Q-school.

Maxwell Moldovan was 5th in the PGA Tour U standings in September. But this whole season he just didn't have it. He fell to 7th, then 9th, then 10th, and now he's 14th in the PGA Tour U standings. In the new Clippd College Golf Rankings, he started this season 75th and has fallen to 177th nationally. He was as high as 15th in the World Amateur Golf Rankings and in one season has fallen to 40th (I follow those rankings religiously and I'm not sure I've ever seen a drop like that in just one golf season - you'd have to be playing like a top-10 player and then immediately start playing like a top-500 player).

I'm not saying that to pick on Moldovan. I hope he plays well at his NCAA Regional, qualifies for nationals, and gets back into the top-10 of the PGA Tour U rankings to get that conditional KFT status. I'm saying that to point out that golf is often like this. You have it and then you don't. Max Homa came out of college as the #1 player in the amateur rankings. He was decent as a pro to start but then bottomed out, falling all the way to #1282 in the Official World Golf Rankings in 2018. And now he's back up to 10th in the world. You have it, then you lose it (like, 100% completely lose it), then you have it.

Think of that happening to Terrence Shannon. 17.2 points per game in 2023 and then something happens and he suddenly scoring 4.1 points per game in 2024. We'd all be saying things like "he has to be injured." Or it would be like Isaiah Williams catching 82 passes in 2022 but then 14 in 2023. Golf is as "it's there, and then it isn't" as any sport.

As a result, coaching college golf is existing in that world. It's adapting to it. It's knowing when a player is in a little slump and knowing when a player doesn't have it. It's all feel because you have to be ahead of the drop-off, not behind it. You have to set your lineups with very little "I have to lean on my seniors here" and a lot of "I really do think this freshman, despite no experience, will outplay this senior this weekend." Coaching college golf is sometimes "Terrence Shannon doesn't have it so I'm going to start Nico Moretti against Iowa State."

And Mike Small has always had a feel for that. He can read a player who is close to breaking out of it and a player who is still stuck in the mud. And he adjusts his rosters (not only for certain tournaments, but even in situations like "this guy needs to redshirt as a senior because he's close to finding it and can help us next season when he's out of his slump") accordingly. So that's the second thing I'd point out about Small's "magic." His ability to read all of that.

But the third thing is probably the most important.

He Understands How To Coach Pressure

At first I thought I worded that poorly, but I think that's exactly what I'm trying to say. He coaches pressure. He understands its importance and applies it as frequently as he can.

I'll use the example of the 2021 Big Ten Championships at Crooked Stick in Indiana. I was there for the final day and the Illini trailed by eight shots to Iowa on the back nine. And then it was the most "one team is primed for this moment and one team is not" that I've seen since the 2005 Arizona game.

Part of the comeback was putting. An Illinois player would make a 7-10 foot par putt and then the Iowa player they were paired with would miss their three footer. And so Iowa lead wouldn't grow, it would stay stagnant.

Part of the comeback was digging deep. I interviewed Michael Feagles and he talked about his "screw it, I'm going over the trees" shot on 16. If he doesn't pull it off, it's a bogey or worse, but he pulls it off, birdies, and pulls Illinois within two shots. There were lots of moments like that on that day, especially Giovanni Tadiotto's eagle on the 11th hole which began the entire comeback from 8-down.

And part of if was simply Iowa not being ready for the moment. I won't mention the golfer because I don't want this to be about him but an Iowa golfer, on 18, with the Tournament now tied, laid the sod over a 100-yard wedge. Took such a deep chunk that his ball didn't come close to getting to the green. He's looking at a 100-yard up-and-down to get the lead back (after his teammate had just given it away with a bad three-putt) and he chunks it. He ends up bogeying and Illinois wins by one after a knee-knocker par putt from Tommy Kuhl drops right into the center of the cup.

This is not to say that Illinois will "find a way to win every tournament" because obviously we won't. It's not to say that the Iowa coach did something wrong. It's simply to say that the the success that Mike Small has had – 13 of the last 15 Big Ten titles and eight match play appearances in the 15 years they've used the match play format at the NCAA Championships – is due to him having his players mentally ready for those moments.

Some think that Small is a great swing coach, and I'm sure that's true. I've written about the putting facility and how Small gets his guys ready to make those crucial five-foot putts. But to me, he's the best mental coach in college golf. Other coaches can recruit better golfers (I don't know if you're aware of this but it's hard to recruit college golfers to a school that gets 25 inches of snow every winter), but there's no coach that mentally prepares his golfer for pressure moments better than Mike Small.

I mean, look at that photo up top. Actually, I'll just link it again here:

That's the 17th tee at Grayhawk last May. Final round before of individual play before match play. Jackson Buchanan is only two shots back of the lead. But there's a backup on 17 because the tees are forward which means many golfers are going for the green from the tee. At one point there were three full groups waiting on that tee including every single golfer competing for the individual title. Easily the single-most gripping SPORTS thing I covered in 2023. Incredible tension.

And there's Mike Small, putting his arm around JB's shoulders and reminding him that he's prepared for the moment. It wasn't a long conversation, just more of a "you're ready for this." JB would birdie that hole to get within one, par the 18th, and watch as Florida's Fred Biondi sank a 4.5 foot par putt to hold him off by one stroke. But JB had done everything on that back nine to put himself in position to possibly win the third Illini individual title. With Small reassuring him that despite only being a sophomore, he was ready for this.

Every moment from the second these players step on campus for the fall semester until their last round of the season is geared towards them being able to stand over that putt on the 18th hole in the final tournament with complete confidence. If it was a movie, as that player stood over that putt, you'd get one of those flashback scenes to every moment where Mike Small had "coached pressure" over the previous nine months. And then it would snap back to the present as the putt fell into the cup.

He'll get that national title soon. And I'll be there to watch that putt.