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Phil Pleat reflects on family legacy in N.H. State Amateur Golf event

NASHUA – Shortly after the biggest victory of his amateur golf career, James Pleat asked his father, three-time New Hampshire State Amateur Golf champion Phil Pleat, a simple question:

“How did you win three of these?”

That’s because Pleat experienced the grueling gauntlet of an intense week of golf just a year ago, but it was likely the most memorable week of his life as he captured the 2020 State Amateur title that has been a family generational legacy, won by his father, grandfather, and great grandfather. James’ grandfather, Thomas J. Leonard Jr., won eight New Hampshire state amateurs between 1939 and 1952, and his great grandfather, Thomas J. Leonard, Sr., won in 1922.

As Pleat prepares to defend his title beginning Monday at North Conway Country Club, he looked back on what the last year has been like after he won the prestigious title in emotional fashion on his home course, the Nashua Country Club. A course where, as the story goes, he learned to walk, running around while his dad was hitting practice balls.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been pretty great,” Pleat said. “I’ve thought more about it as the State Am has approached this year. We’ll say that ‘New Hampshire State Amateur Champion’ has a great ring to it.

“It was such a crazy week when it was happening; just to kind of step back and relive it and think about all the stuff that went on and think of how important it was to me and my family, what a special week it was, has been great. And just to have a year to do that. …

“I never really knew what it would feel like – and it feels even better than that.”

Yes, what a week it was. The city, like the nation, was in the midst of a pandemic, and Pleat, who had been living in Boston pre-COVID, was living in his parents house, close to NCC.

Pleat heard from countless people after the victory – friends of his family, of his parents, his own friends, “or people just coming out of the woodwork to say congrats, nice job. It was really overwhelming, and I really appreciated all the support and congratulations I got from people. And it really – I’m just very lucky to have not only my family and friends but just these people around the area or far away supporting me and being there every step of the way.”

A lot of the people Pleat knows at NCC had watched him grow up on the course, which made that win even more special. But did this win change his life? Of course it did.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t change my life, absolutely,” he said. “Obviously golf’s a big part of my life, my family, my family’s identity and my identity. And really the State Am was always the one I wanted to win, ever since I was watching my Dad, ever since I saw my grandfather’s and great grandfather’s name on that plaque.”

There were a couple of times he thought he might win it, but that didn’t happen. But it just created the great scenario that occurred when the Nashua South alum beat Bishop Guertin alum Cam Sheedy 2 and 1, sinking a putt on 17 to end the match with a crowd following his every move.

“It’s not like I won the Masters,” Pleat said. “But certainly for me and my family, it felt like something that big.”

That’s because it was part of local sports and golf history. For Pleat, the victory was pretty much “a little bit of a relief, getting that monkey off my back.” And that pressure, he said, was self-inflicted.

But that win gave Pleat the confidence “that I can do it, because for a while there I didn’t quite think I could. Golf is a big part of it – it’s not the be-all-end-all, but it’s something at the end of the day, I enjoyed doing it, my family has enjoyed doing it.”

Of course, Pleat knew he had to have a few lucky breaks. But the one thing he understood was the focus it would take.

“Just making sure you’re prepared for each day,” he said. “It’s a long week both physically and mentally. I’ll certainly bring that to other tournaments, not just the State Am.

“I thought I had the game to win it before then, but it just didn’t happen. Certainly nothing was easy that week. It’s a long week, and it really takes a toll on you in all aspects, mentally and physically. And to do it during the middle of a pandemic didn’t make it easier.”

Winning the event at home certainly could have caused a distraction. But Pleat really wanted to win in 2011 when the event had last been held at NCC, but came up short. But being familiar with the course helped last year, “but the pressure is certainly higher.”

The week had its hurdles. The toughest days were the last three days, playing 36 on each. He trailed fellow NCC member Eric McCoy on Thursday but rallied to win on the second extra hole, on a blistering hot day.

“But I would honestly say the last day was the hardest,” he said, “because of the pressure being sky high. And it was kind of a different day. It was really windy, it was tricky out there, and I didn’t have my best stuff. Cam didn’t as well. But just knowing you’re in the finals, that was the hardest day for me because I was in unchartered (sic) territory, as I had only made it to the semis before that. But they were all difficult in their own way.”

That day Pleat discovered the different feeling of being in the finals.

“The atmosphere is definitely different, because it’s just you and the other guy,” Pleat said. “That mentality is different.Also the 36 hole match thing is different. A 3-up or 4-up lead is good in an 18 hole match, but in 36 holes – I had a 4-up lead coming down the stretch and it pretty much evaporated very quickly. You have to keep your foot on the gas even if you think you have a comfortable lead.

“In terms of preparation, it’s just getting the nerves ready, because you know you’re going to be nervous. Take a few deep breaths and do your best.”

GOLF WON OVER OTHER SPORTS

Pleat, the Dartmouth grad, grew up in the area playing a lot of different sports like most kids. He played baseball and basketball, and obviously golf at a very young age. “But basketball was my first favorite sport for awhile, and when I realized I wasn’t as good in basketball, maybe as I was in golf, I decided to choose golf.”

He played in junior events. He played golf at Nashua South as well as Dartmouth. He saw one of his former Dartmouth teammates turn pro as well as some of the players he played junior golf with, and he saw them struggle. He followed his father Phil’s amateur career that included those three titles, “having a job and trying to succeed at that job while also succeeding in playing amatuer golf as a hobby. He obviously loved the game, and I did too.”

Pleat felt that playing golf as a job “might take some of the fun out of it, and would be a pretty hard road.”

He saw his father playing “for the love of the game, and being an amateur, and having that flexibility, having a job he likes, playing golf and being with his family” and it was attractive to James Pleat.

He played hoop at Elm Street, and a little AAU ball, but then realized he’d have to make a choice since it’d be tough to hone his basketball skills like so many do over the summer – peak golf time.

“Golf starting taking over the summer as opposed to AAU,” Pleat said, “so I said, ‘May as well play golf.’ But I definitely missed basketball and baseball for sure.”

His first swing was probably when he was six years old, and his first tournament came when he was 10.

“It’s a little bit different than basketball or baseball,” Pleat said. “In golf, it’s just you.”

Pleat says he definitely feels that he made the right decision to not only choose golf, but to choose to remain an amateur.

“There are a few times when I wonder, maybe I should have tried to go pro,” he said. “But I still look at golf as a hobby and something I enjoy doing. The competitive part of it is really fun, too. I think I made the right decision.

“It’s one sport where you can continue doing it. My Dad is still competing, and he’s 65. I’d love to do that. We’ll see.”

Over the last five years, Pleat says he’s worked on “definitely the mental aspect, and a lot of it just managing my game.” And he feels his short game has improved, “and it’s something I’d like to improve on going forward.”

Managing the game, he says, is something he’s learned, thanks to Phil Pleat.

“I definitely have to thank my Dad for that,” James Pleat said. “He’s very good at doing that, kind of thinking his way around the golf course. Knowing where to miss shots, when you don’t have your best stuff, what’s your Plan B, what’s your Plan C.

“Really thinking your way around the course, taking what the course gives you. Risk hitting driver, is that really worth it? Or just play the fatter part of the fairway, and go from there. Being familiar with my own game, my own limitations, and kind of preparing around that has really been something I’ve improved on in the last five years.”

And having Phil Pleat caddy for his son on that final day certainly was a plus for James.

“It was a lot of fun, but having someone there, when your nerves are all over the place and your mind is going places, someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of, and confirm what you’re thinking, where the wind is and what to hit, was huge,” James Pleat said. “The day before, I think it was on the 15th hole, when I got up and down from behind a tree, I wouldn’t have known where to drop it. He was huge there and helpful that way – and obviously drawing on his experience at the State Am, where I hadn’t been, was so helpful.

“And just having your dad there, caddying for you, meant a lot.”

Being close to home was huge, as Pleat could practice there. And the day after winning the tournament, Pleat said he didn’t play golf – but he did hit some practice balls because he was preparing to play in the Massachusetts Amateur that following week. He played well the first day, not so great the second, and didn’t make the cut for match play.

But no big deal. It was, in Pleat’s words, “bonus golf.” After all that golf, it was time to hit the beach.

“Definitely tried to relax, it was still cloud nine,” Pleat said.

So now it’s time to move on to his title defense. He and his dad played a practice round at North Conway a couple of weeks ago. Pleat says he’s prepared “to grind it out”, try to make match play “and as defending champion, I’d like to have a deep run.”

But the weight is lifted. Pleat, while definitely wanting a good showing that comes with being the defending champion and building on last year, will be relaxed. He’ll keep practicing and see how his game goes.

“Obviously I’m looking forward to defending (his title) at North Conway,” Pleat said. “But whatever happens from here on out, nobody can take away the week that I had last summer, and that my family had at Nashua. That’s certainly a thing to go forward with.”

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