Forgive Mike Small if he wasn’t hanging on his cell phone to mark the first day that college golf coaches can contact recruits. The 2009 Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year was playing hooky by winning a second PGA Professional National Championship.

You’re off the hook, Coach.

The 43-year-old Small arrived in the showcase event for PGA Professionals with what he called a “so-so” game the past few months and a bad back that caused him fits the night before the first round. Yet, he rallied on the back nine in the final round at Twin Warriors Golf Club while those ahead of him on the leader board backed up.

He closed with a 3-under-par 68 for a one-stroke victory over third-round leader Mark Sheftic of Ambler, Pa., and 1995 National Champ ion Steve Schneiter of Sandy, Utah.

“I didn’t come into this week with any expectations; I’ve finished second twice and come from behind twice to win now. I guess I’ve shocked myself,” said Small, whose winning total of 7-under par 277 earned him $75,000 from a $550,000 purse and made him one of only four players to win two or more PGA Professional National Championships.

The shock for Small wasn’t complete until Sheftic and Schneiter, playing a group behind, had missed in their bid on the 18th green to force a playoff. Small learned from PGA officials on the practice range that he was a Champion once more.

The drama back on the 18th green came in stages while Small had warmed up hitting a few practice balls. Sheftic, a PGA teaching professional at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., hit an 8-iron approach over the green and chipped short before missing a six-foot par putt.

“I think my nerves got the best of me,” said Sheftic, who was making his Championship debut. “But it felt so good to play this week and I won’t complain.”

Schneiter, a PGA assistant professional at Schneiter’s Pebblebrook in Sandy, Utah, saw his 35-foot birdie putt run two feet past the cup. It was deja’ vu’ for Schneiter, who finished runner-up by a stroke at Twin Warriors when it hosted the 2003 National Championship.

“I had a chance, but made double [bogey] at 12, bounced back with birdies at 13 and 16, but the three-putt at 17 was the story,” said Schneiter.

Small, the lone Illinois PGA Section member to win this National Championship, has a glossy record since his debut in 2004, including a 70.79 scoring average. He finished runner-up in 2004, won in 2005, was fourth in 2006, shared second in 2007 and tied for 41st in 2008.

Small birdied the 13th and 16th holes and came to the 18th green facing a potential winning 35-foot uphill birdie putt. The ball rolled up and just slipped by the left edge of the hole.

“I made a good putt there,” said Small, “and it was nice to hit a good one because I didn’t hit many during the round.”

“I guess this came out of nowhere. I didn’t think about winning this until yesterday. I haven’t had much time to digest it yet.”

Small got the boost he needed to stabilize his round and make the title run. It came on the 584-yard 16th hole. He hit a 230-yard 4-iron approach to within 15 feet of the hole.

“I hit a great shot at 16,” said Small. “It was a quieting shot for me. It quieted me down. I didn’t hit the eagle putt well, but I ended up with a birdie. It seemed like everyone was bunched up all day out there. But in the end, in this altitude, on that course and the heat, they kind of came back to me. I guess I kind of outlasted them.”

While Small was dueling for a title against Sheftic and Schneiter, there were other sub-plots that made this Championship one of the more memorable in its 42-year history.

Lee Rinker of Jupiter, Fla., who had not made a cut in two years after finishing third in 2006, closed with a 71 to share fourth at 279 with Craig Thomas of White Plains, N.Y., Ryan Benzel of Bothell, Wash., Eric Lippert of Marina, Calif.

Tim Weinhart of Suwanee, Ga., who had vaulted to take the Championship lead midway through the round at 8-under par, closed with a 70, and finished tied for eighth with Keith Dicciani of White Plains, N.Y., Grant Sturgeon of Pittsburgh, Pa., Bob Gaus of St. Louis, and Todd Lancaster of Aurora, Ohio.

Thomas and Dicciani registered a Championship rarity, coming from the same golf club to earn one of 20 berths in the 91st PGA Championship. Thomas is the PGA head professional and Dicciani an assistant at Metropolis Country Club in White Plains, N.Y. Dicciani is engaged to Thomas’ stepdaughter.

Sturgeon, however, was the story of the Championship for his gutsy comeback from an opening-round 79.

The PGA assistant professional at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, closed with a 69 for his third consecutive round in the 60s. He also made the cut on Monday night thanks to a hole-in-one and a final-hole birdie.

“I usually hit the ball well and I played so uptight the first day like I had something to lose,” said Sturgeon, “but I had not won anything to lose yet. I fought back and am happy with how I finished.”

The PGA Professional National Championship featured 312 players representing 43 states and 41 PGA Sections.


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