Mike Small thought Wednesday’s final round of the 95th Illinois PGA Championship turned on the 14th and 15th holes on Olympia Fields Country Club’s testing South Course, where a brace of birdies drew him into a tie with 36-hole leader Curtis Malm.
As big was what happened next. With Small making pars, Malm three-putted the par-4 16th, missing a four-footer for par, and triple-bogeyed the par-4 17th via a pair of penalty strokes created by excursions into the jungle.
In four holes, Small had gone from two behind to three ahead of Brian Brodell and Travis Johns and four ahead of Malm.
That’s a lead someone of Small’s caliber is not going to surrender, especially in a championship he holds so dear and on a course he knows so well.
So it would be. Small’s 4-under-par 68 for 10-under 208 earned him a two-stroke victory over Brodell, Malm and Johns, an auspicious triumph that was a familiar result but hardly routine.
It was the record-extending 12th Illinois Section championship for Small, and third on Olympia Fields South. Nobody else has won it on the layout since the championship returned here in 2010 after a 40-year absence.
All 12 of those titles have been won in the 21st century, by a total of 47 strokes, across 36 rounds in which Small is 94-under-par.
This one, though, was different in that the tables turned quickly at the end.
“I feel bad for him, because he played really well,” Small said of Malm, who led by three after three holes but never more than two thereafter. “He played great. But the birdies on 14 and 15 were big for me.”
They followed a bogey 5 on the 13th that Small kicked himself about going to the 14th tee. At that point, Malm, despite missing a 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th, was 11-under and led by two strokes.
“If (Curtis) makes the birdie putt on 13 and I miss the bogey putt, it’s a three-shot swing, tournament over,” Small said. “Instead, it’s a one-shot swing and I birdie the next two holes.”
He made an 18-footer to cut the lead to one on the par-3 14th, and a solid 10-footer on the 15th made tied Malm for the lead and set up, effectively, a three-hole showdown for the title. It was over after two holes.
“If I don’t make birdies right away, it’s over,” Small said. “That’s momentum in golf. I talk to my team about that: Individual momentum, making birdies on top of birdies. He had control of the thing all day today on me and Travis.”
Malm was, literally, bloodied but unbowed. He had three nasty scrapes on his right hand from seeing if he could play the tee ball that went wayward to the right on the penultimate hole. Instead, he gashed himself.
“I got in there and I took the club back a little bit to see if I would catch any resistance, and everything just kind of leaped on me,” Malm said. “It was an easy call to take the unplayable. Drop it, catch another tree and hit it in the junk, take another unplayable, and then almost hole it and miss another putt. It would have been the greatest bogey anybody had ever seen.
“I didn’t make the greatest swing in the world on 17, but if that ball bounces anywhere but directly back, I chip out and make 5. It’s a different ball game. What are you gonna do?”
Small began to win the title back on the 203-yard par-3 fifth, where his knockdown 3-iron went for the cup like an arrow, finishing eight inches from tumbling in. It was not only the only birdie of the day on the hole, it was the shot of the championship.
“It was just perfect all the way,” Small recalled. “It drew about five yards right in there.”
And it sent a message. Small had started the final round tied for third place at 6-under, two strokes behind Malm, with Johns at 7-under. Small parred the first four holes and was still two back.
“That was huge,” he said. “I’d played some good shots on the first four holes but I couldn’t make a birdie.”
He would make five more thereafter. Even a meaningless bogey at the last didn’t take his smile away.
Malm didn’t collect the first prize of $11,200, but didn’t feel all that bad when looking at the week as a whole.
“For as not well as I thought I played, I finished second again,” Malm said. “That’s three in five years. But like I said here three years ago, some day he’s going to retire and seconds turn into firsts.”
Johns had seemed to play himself out of it after opening 3-over on the first six holes, but birdied three in a row and four of five starting at the ninth to race home in 71 and 208 for a share of second. Brodell was even faster, with eight birdies and three bogeys for a 5-under 67 to reach the same total. But starting five strokes behind Malm, he had no illusions about his chances.
“None,” Brodell said. “Not against Curtis and Travis and the greatest club pro in history.”
There’s a new title for the 50-year-old Small. And here’s one more goal. The oldest to win the Illinois PGA is Gary Groh, who was 57 when he won in a playoff at Kemper Lakes in 2002.
The fellow Groh beat? Mike Small, his only runner-up placing.
Rousing finish to Round 2
While Malm was authoring a birdie-birdie finish to his second round for a second straight 4-under 68 and total of 8-under 136 entering the final 18, Exmoor’s Brian Janty did even better.
His 6-under 66 earned him a tie for third with Small at lunchtime. He had gone out in 4-under 32 on the South Course’s back nine, then added a birdie on No. 1 before darkness Tuesday. Wednesday morning, Janty birdied the third and fourth holes and was 7-under on his round, but played the final five holes 1-over just when he was threatening to match or surpass Malm.
Defending champion Jim Billiter parred his final three holes Wednesday morning for a 7-under 65, the best round of the championship.
Billiter, Janty and Nick Taute of South Side Country Club in Decatur finished tied for fifth.
Heard under the clock tower
With Small already exempt, next 10 finishers qualified for next year’s PGA Professional Championship, a.k.a. the club pro championship. That group included Steve Orrick and Adam Schumacher, who tied for eighth, 10th place Tim Puetz and 11th place Matt Slowinski. Doug Bauman, 59, is first alternate. ... The field averaged 75.35 strokes in the final round, with 56 of the 138 birdies recorded on the par-5 10th and par-4 11th holes, the latter shortened to 288 yards for the day. ... Dakun Chang of Twin Orchard Country Club jumped into a tie for 24th with a 3-under 69, behind only Brodell’s 67 and Small’s 68 for the day’s best round.