CASHIERS, N.C. – USGA amateur championships, which involve 36 holes of stroke play in order to make it to single-elimination match play, are often called survival tests.
That phrase, however, has a very different meaning for 2013 USGA Senior Amateur competitor Mike Booker.
Since being diagnosed with skin cancer eight years ago, the 58-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, has been in a constant fight to keep the melanoma, which has appeared behind his left ear and on his arm and chest, in remission. And although the cancer has re-appeared twice since the initial diagnosis, thus far Booker has remained free of any serious complications.
“Every three months they do a full body scan,” said Booker. “They look at every inch of my body and every mole.”
On Tuesday morning at the 2013 USGA Senior Amateur at Wade Hampton Golf Club, Booker prevailed in a different type of examination, one that didn’t involve doctors or fancy machinery.
For the first time in eight career USGA amateur championships – he also qualified for the 2010 U.S. Senior Open (missed cut) – Booker advanced past the second round of match play.
A 2-up victory over Bill Leonard, of Dallas, Ga., moved Booker into the Round of 16, where he faces Don Erickson III, of Dubois, Pa., on Tuesday afternoon.
In his previous match, Booker took a 1-up lead on the 17th hole and then watched his opponent hit his tee shot into the hazard left of the 18th fairway. When Leonard’s fourth shot found the creek to the left of the green, Booker nestled his 70-foot putt to within 2 feet for a conceded par.
“I’ve been hitting a lot of greens,” said Booker, discussing the reasons for his successful run this week. “There’s so much trouble around these greens.”
But missing a green, or even losing a match for that matter, doesn’t seem bad when compared to having skin cancer. Fortunately for Booker, his problem was detected early, when his dermatologist performed a biopsy on the the black spot behind his ear and found it to be malignant..
“It was situ, so it was just on my skin,” said Booker. “But at some point, melanoma goes under the skin and when it does, there’s an 85 percent kill rate. One person an hour dies from melanoma. It’s quite deadly once it gets into the bloodstream.”
Since being diagnosed, Booker has become an expert in skin cancer, learning all the facts and figures associated with the disease. For starters, he said sun exposure is not the No. 1 cause.
“That’s, like, fifth on the list,” he said. “It’s family history or the number of moles you have. I had a lot of moles.”
Booker and his wife, Pat, decided to create the Mike and Pat Booker Melanoma Research Endowment, where 5 percent of the funds go to the Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the top cancer facilities in the country. Booker and his wife donate a portion of their earnings each year and have raised nearly $1 million.
“We have a couple of other minor donors, but my wife and I save money every year,” said Booker, who doesn’t do any formal fund-raising.
A native of Downey, Calif., Booker enjoyed a solid junior career in Southern California before accepting a golf scholarship to former national powerhouse Houston in 1975 out of Wharton Junior College. Booker looked at UCLA and the University of Southern California, but when legendary Houston coach Dave Williams extended an offer, Booker bolted for Texas without even visiting the campus.
Houston had already produced the likes of Bruce Lietzke, Phil Rodgers, John Mahaffey and Marty Fleckman.
Booker’s teammates on the 1977 NCAA Division I title team included Ed Fiori, David Ishii and Ron Kilby. Booker was an All-American that year and the Cougars claimed the 13th of their record 16 national titles.
“It was a great time,” said Booker. “Back then, that’s where you went [for golf].”
After graduating, Booker briefly tried professional golf without much success. He eventually founded Financial Synergies, a financial planning company, and has been doing that for the past 33 years.
Booker regained his amateur status in 1985 and immediately started winning events, including the Houston City Amateur, which he has won four times (1985, 1990, 2001 and 2002). He also won the Texas State Mid-Amateur in 2003 and last year, he was named the Texas Senior Player of the Year.
But he’s still looking for his big national breakthrough, and giving it a run at Wade Hampton.
After all, it’s a matter of survival, something Booker knows well.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.