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Small Set to Defend PGA Professional National Championship
Mike Small strolled through Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, watching visitors climb into one of 11 roller coasters, while others munched on everything from pretzels and hot dogs to all varieties of chocolate products.
"I haven't been back to this park since I was 10 years old," said Small, the three-time PGA Professional national champion who was visiting "The Sweetest Place on Earth" as a featured guest Monday as Hershey Country Club hosted the 44th PGA Professional National Championship media day.
"It's a great place for the family. This town is a great place. I know that a lot of players will be happy that we're coming here for the championship."
Small will head a field of 312 players, competing June 26-29, in the first PGA Professional National Championship to visit Pennsylvania. The 2011 event will feature a $550,000 total purse.
Nostalgia isn't a big part of Small's mantra, but the 45-year-old University of Illinois men's golf coach does have a special niche in PGA of America storybooks. The most successful NCAA Division I golf coach who plays competitively, Small guided the Fighting Illini to their third consecutive Big Ten Conference title last week. He also is the only Illinois PGA Section member to win a national championship.
"We won by 19 strokes!" said Small, with the pride of a father having watched his sons compete. "I'm very proud of them. I won't know where we will be headed for the NCAA Regionals until I get back home late Monday. Wherever we go, I feel good about the guys and how they have improved."
Coach Small is again just getting into polishing his own game, considering that he has played only five rounds this spring while traveling with his team. He returns to Hershey to compete for the first time since 1997, when he was a member of the former Nike (now Nationwide Tour). Small competed in the former Nike Hershey Open on the East Course. That year, he won the Nike Cleveland Open two weeks prior to arriving at Hershey.
"I remember missing the cut here, and hope that I can play better when I return in June," said Small. "This is classic golf. When I say that, it is because there is not a lot of earth moved to make a course. It is like the courses I grew up on."
Small emphasized to visiting media from the Philadelphia and Tri-State PGA Sections that the PGA Professional National Championship is a "career-defining moment" for PGA professionals.
"This championship is our Super Bowl, our Masters and our U.S. Open," said Small. "It is what a player looks forward to in our Association. Every professional has his or her own way of preparing, of doing things before playing in this championship.
"One misconception is that I play a lot of golf. Last year, I played one four-day event before competing at French Lick (Ind.). I will work to play one Tour event, the St. Jude Classic, before coming back. That is one of the six exemptions I earned from winning the championship last year."
The showcase event for PGA professionals will be played on Hershey's East and West Courses, which Small toured during his visit.
"Somebody did not like to help us on media day with these pin placements," said Small. "The pin placements on these greens, which have a lot of mounding and slope, were rough. It will be very interesting to see how the courses are set up in June."
Hershey's East Course will play to par-71, measuring 7,051 yards, while the West will be trimmed from a par-73 to par-72 for the championship, and measure 6,750 yards.
Small agreed that the par-3 holes on both courses are challenging and that the player who navigates the best through the eight par-3s will be among the leaders. The East Course features par-3s of 202, 224, 187 and 215 yards, while the West, the former home of the LPGA Lady Keystone Open, has par-3s measuring 176, 232, 180 and 162.
Media day guests included PGA of America vice president Ted Bishop and five members of the Philadelphia PGA Section that will compete in the championship.
"The PGA of America is very proud to bring our national championship to Hershey," said Bishop, the general manager and PGA director of golf at the Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind. "When you think of the rich history that abounds throughout this club and city, it is a natural. I could not think of a more appropriate placed to crown our next national champion."
Pennsylvania is the 15th state to host the PGA Professional National Championship, and by visiting Hershey Country Club, it returns to a facility that hosted the 1940 PGA Championship won by Ben Hogan. It was also home to arguably two of the most successful PGA club professionals in history be employed at the same facility.
Two-time major champion Henry Picard was the PGA head professional at Hershey Country Club from 1935-40, and recommended Ben Hogan as his successor. Hogan remained through the U.S. Open in 1951. During his near 10-year term at Hershey, Hogan won 52 of his 64 career Tour victories, including six of nine major championships.
Bishop referred to the two "sub-plots" that exist in this year's national championship. The low 20 scorers earn a berth in the 93rd PGA Championship, August 8-14, at Atlanta Athletic Club; and Small, who already has earned enough points, will be joined by nine others determined at Hershey to compete on the 25th United States PGA Cup Team, September 16-18, at CordeValle in San Martin, Calif.
"The opportunity to compete for your country is rare for us as a club professional," said Small. "I have been fortunate to have been a member of three PGA Cup teams (2005, '07, '09), and I want to tell you, that is one of the greatest experiences I have had in golf."
Begun in 1968 as an outgrowth of the PGA Championship, the PGA Professional National Championship brings together the finest playing PGA professionals representing the PGA of America's 41 nationwide Sections. Past champions include Sam Snead, Bob Rosburg, Don Massengale and Bruce Fleisher.
The above report is courtesy of the PGA of America. For more information, visit www.pga.com.