Notebook: Family Ties Key To Pleat's Success


Mike Booker’s two bouts with melanoma spurred him to create a foundation to help those who are also affected by the disease. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)

By Michael Trostel, USGA
September 13, 2011

Manakin-Sabot, Va. -- Having won 13 amateur championships, Phil Pleat is a staple on the New Hampshire golf scene. So is his son, James, a former state junior champion who currently plays on the Dartmouth College golf team. 

And while both Phil and James have accomplished a great deal, neither Pleat is the best player in their family history. That title belongs to Phil’s father-in-law, Thomas J. Leonard Jr., for whom the New Hampshire State Player of the Year Award is named – an honor that Pleat has earned three times. 

Leonard was also a decorated amateur in the Granite State. He won the state amateur eight times and competed in over half a dozen USGA championships. In the 1947 U.S. Amateur, he beat two-time runner-up Raymond Billows in the second round. 

But Pleat never had the opportunity to meet Leonard, who died in a car crash when Pleat’s wife, Lisa, was 12. September 13 marks the anniversary of Leonard’s death, making Pleat’s run at the 2011 USGA Senior Amateur even more meaningful for his family. 

“It was special to win the award named after him,” said the 55-year-old Nashua, N.H., native. “And my son has his name on the State Junior trophy, along with his grandfather and uncle, who also won.” 

Despite all his tournament victories, one of Pleat’s favorite golf memories is caddieing for James at the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills.  

“I was happy he made it this year before I was too old to caddie,” chuckled Pleat, who has qualified for five U.S. Amateurs himself. “It was great for me just to caddie. It’s fun playing, but to caddie for your son is pretty special.” 

James missed the cut by one stroke, but the whole experience tightened the bond between father and son and brought back memories from Phil’s first Amateur experience. 

“At the 1990 U.S. Amateur, I wanted my wife to travel with me, but she was pregnant with James at the time. It was the first one I qualified for. I guess it was fortunate I didn’t play particularly well and missed the cut because he was born early. I got home just in time.” 

James had hoped to repay the favor by caddieing for his father at Kinloch this week, but a tournament for the Dartmouth golf team prevented a trip to Virginia for the 21-year-old. 

On Tuesday morning, Pleat closed with birdies on the 13th and 14th holes to defeat Jack Vardaman, 71, of Washington, D.C., 5 and 4. He proceeded to edge fellow New Englander Andrew Congdon, 2 and 1, on Tuesday afternoon, to advance to the quarterfinals. 

Shortly after his victory over Vardaman, he sent James a text relaying the positive result. While they may not be together geographically this week, you can bet they’ll be pulling for each other in their respective championships.  

Booker Able to Come Back On, Off Course  

Mike Booker stood on the 15th tee of Monday’s first-round of match play at the USGA Senior Amateur 2-down. With only four holes remaining, he certainly had an uphill battle. With a little luck and some hard work, he might be able to pull it out. 

But he already knew that. Booker has been there before. 

In 2005, at age 50, Booker was in for a regular check-up when his doctor found a silver-dollar size spot on his neck. The doctor suspected it was just a liver spot and didn’t think it was anything to worry about, but referred him to a dermatologist as a precaution.  

The sample came back malignant, but it was in situ, meaning that the tumor had not metastasized beyond the original site where it was discovered. In cases such as this, if removed promptly, the tumor is unlikely to cause harm to the patient. If it goes under the skin, however, and enters the bloodstream, the prognosis is dire with an 82 percent fatality rate – nearly five out of six patients. 

This past April, Booker had another sample taken from his back. After five years with no signs of cancer, this spot came within one millimeter of penetrating his skin. It was removed quickly, but the incident has prompted Booker to see a doctor every three months for screening. 

To help other melanoma cancer patients, the 56-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, and his wife founded the “Mike and Pat Booker Melanoma Research Endowment,” which has raised more than $600,000 to date.  

“As you get older, you appreciate everything more,” said Booker, who played on the University of Houston golf team that won the 1977 NCAA Championship. “It takes a lot to get to 56 and I say a prayer every night. I am grateful because I know people who have died from melanoma so it’s very difficult to understand why it’s them and not you. And you never get the answer to that.” 

This year’s Senior Amateur is Booker’s eighth USGA championship. He had never won a match going into Monday’s first-round match-up with Gary Brewster, 58, of New Orleans, La. Despite playing well, Booker trailed for most of the day. 

“I thought I’d get beat, but wanted to give it my best shot.” 

Booker birdied four of his last six holes and won the match, erasing that two-hole deficit with four to play to win, 2-up. 

“I got a lot of texts from friends in Texas,” said Booker. “It was great to have so much support from home – I was a hero for a day.”  

And despite losing in the second round, Booker, with his wife Pat, continue to be heroes in their community by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for melanoma cancer research. 

Michael Trostel is the curator/historian at the USGA Museum. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org. 

   

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