Poor Mike Small. He thought he'd driven up from Illini territory to play a casual round of golf. But his morning began with a plea from someone who putts as if he's wearing oven mitts.
I launched into something about the forward press and keeping my head down throughout the stroke and …
"All you should be thinking about is trying to get the ball into the little hole," Small said. "When you're throwing darts or shooting hoops, do you think about keeping your elbow down? How's putting any different? Be an athlete, dude."
That's it? What about pendulum and grip pressure and judging break and all those other hundreds of terms that haunt guys like me?
Small acknowledged the importance of good fundamentals — squaring up the face, rocking with the shoulders, etc.
Beyond that, Small wants his Illinois golfers to "visualize what the ball will do. And be confident. Some guys on my team are more confident with the ladies than on the greens."
That got me thinking about golf pickup lines. Three-putt here often?
I knew it would be foolish to ignore Small's advice.
Two years ago he set the course record at Olympia Fields South with a 63 to win the Illinois PGA Championship for the eighth consecutive time. The 46-year-old has won three PGA Professional National Championships, beating the country's finest teacher/players, and completed the first three rounds of last year's PGA Championship in 1 over par. Even after a Sunday 78, he beat the likes of Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and PGA Tour stars Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Ernie Els.
Small was an All-Big Ten golfer at Illinois but had some doubts he'd be able to make a comfortable living on tour. He tied for second in the 1988 Big Ten tournament — but finished 14 shots behind his best buddy, Steve Stricker.
After years of winning minitour events — Hello, Cleveland Open — but missing PGA Tour cuts, Small let Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther talk him into coaching.
Think that decision paid off? Small now makes six figures a year from playing, and his team is a Big Ten beast, having won four straight conference titles. It will compete in the NCAA tournament's Norman, Okla., regional from Thursday to Saturday.
His team has only six golfers, the perfect number.
"Five travel, and the one at home has no one to complain to," Small joked.
Small, the coach, does not morph into Small, the player, until the Illini season ends. Still, it was a surprise that through seven holes at Royal Melbourne, Small was 3 over, only one shot better than me.
"I can't kick it in!" he exclaimed after missing a short birdie putt.
I could relate. My putting generally ranges from lousy to quite lousy, and Small immediately saw why.
My arms were too far from my body, my shoulders were barely involved in my stroke and, as Small said, "You have everything going at different speeds. You want the same RPM."
My pre-putt routine doesn't resemble Small's. He rehearses the length of the stroke while he's facing his line, when both eyes can judge distance. Then he wipes his blade, addresses his ball, eyes his target several times and lets it go.
"I tell the guys: 'Get it dirty,' " he said. " 'Hit the back of the cup.' "
This round, though, represented an unusual variety of Small Ball: His putts were missing left and right. He could live with that until we had a chat after his bogey on No. 7.
"This score's going in the paper?" he said. "You've got to tell me! We all have pride, don't we?"
Small's goal for the summer is to qualify for the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Small played there in 1998 and recalled: "I was in the locker room when Jack Nicklaus made a putt on 18 to make the cut. The crowd erupted so loud, the clubhouse shook."
Small shot a birdie-free 78 at Royal Melbourne, perhaps because he spent so much time trying to rehab my putting.
"It's not a pipe dream," he said. "You can be a good putter. You've got to get the ball dirty, man."
18 Holes with … Mike Small
Five-second bio: Short-game whiz has competed in 10 major championships — and has won four straight Big Ten titles as the Illinois men's golf coach.
Where: Royal Melbourne, Long Grove (Shark tees: 6,731 yards).
Small's handicap: Plus-3.
What he shot: 78.
Coaching philosophy: "Take ownership of your game. Don't try to be like Tiger Woods or Luke Donald or Steve Stricker."