The N.H. Amateur golf championship has a rich and storied 116-year, war-interrupted history.
Sixty-nine players have accounted for the full complement of wins. Two players – Bob Mielcarz of Concord and Thomas Leonard Jr. of Nashua – own 17 with nine and eight, respectively. Twenty-five players have won the event more than once.
Starting Monday at Nashua Country Club, another 156-player field will give chase for the coveted trophy. It is more than a horse race; it is a grind, an endurance test, a fluke-proof competition stretched over six days in the middle of summer.
It is stroke play at first followed by mano a mano match-play, elimination-style with each day a new layer of tension-thick drama.
For the final player on each side of the bracket, a single-day 36-hole finale awaits.
It is, to be sure, one of the toughest golfing triumphs to claim.
In an event that dates to 1901, three area players are among the 67 different winners.
Paul Kennett was an 18-year-old Keene High School senior when he swept local fans into a frenzy and marched to victory in 1968 at his home course, Keene Country Club, not the betting favorite.
Bretwood Golf Course’s Hugh Barrett was just 21 and regarded by many as the state’s top amateur player at that time when he blitzed Ray Brooks 11-and-10 on championship Saturday at Derryfield in Manchester in 1980, the start of 11 straight match-play wins in the event for him.
Keene’s Derek MacAllister was 28 when he took the 2004 State-Am at Laconia CC by the scruff of the neck and never let go, riding a new-found confidence that culminated with a victory over Stephen Lane in the finals with a host of family and friends there to witness his crowning golf moment.
Monday, this area will be represented by Jake Hollander, who reached the finals last year; the always-dangerous Ryan Kohler; veteran Mike Blair, who was medalist at a recent qualifier at Keene CC; Cameron Salo; Tim Yarosevich; Nick Fenuccio; James Kinnunen, Erik Karlson; Jacob Miller; young teen Mitchell Cormier; and decorated senior amateur Bob Kearney.
Kearney, Kohler and Salo were exempt; the others earned a tee time by making the cut in a qualifying tournament.
This year’s field includes 10 previous champions, including the defending title-holder John DeVito, 30, and a slew of young, super talented players who know how to go low and will be fun to watch, said three-time champion Phil Pleat of the host course.
Pleat, now 65, is the winningest amateur player in state history. He is paired with Mielcarz, who won three in a row before Barrett broke through in 1980; and Kearney, who summers in the region and who was at one time this decade one of the top-ranked senior amateur players in the country.
They go off Monday at 9:20 from the first tee.
Pleat would be the oldest player to win, and few are discounting that possibility as he navigates a not-too-long golf course he knows better than any player in the field. Peter Harrity was 55 when he won at Owl’s Nest in 2002; the average age of the winners since then, however, is 24.
1968: Keene teen Kennett captivates at home
Paul Kennett, now 70, remains the event’s youngest champion. He defeated veteran Warren Tibbets 2-and-1 to cap a memorable week in which local followers grew in number as the youthful, long-hitting player kept advancing.
Tibbetts won the first of his two State-Am titles 13 years earlier, at Keene CC, and he eliminated Kennett in the quarterfinals in 1965 at Laconia.
Kennett, medalist after stroke play at 1-under par, said he fed off the “local energy” that week in Keene. He said “the people did a wonderful job supporting me. I just remember that it was very, very grueling, playing 36 holes a day in that heat.”
Kennett said he felt the heat – temperatures in the 90s three days that July week – played to his age advantage in the end.
“I think Warren (then 48) ran out of energy before I did,” Kennett said. “Back then the course was really dried out; there wasn’t a sprinkler system for all 18 holes. You could hit a tee shot and get 50 yards of roll, and I was a long hitter. But it was my putting that was my strength. I could be wild off the tee, so match play was better for me than stroke play.”
Kennett remembers being 6-down after eight holes in one early-round match against Paul Welsh of Manchester that week but he went on a back-nine birdie-barrage, ending at the 18th hole, when he knocked in a 20-foot putt to advance 1-up.
Each State-Am title-triumph story is laced with such moments of destiny, and that is so much a part of the event’s lore. Kennett said that improbable early victory, as much as anything, was proof that anything was possible for him that week.
He then dispatched Wayne Mullavey, Bob Elliott Jr., and Paul Moriarty Jr. None of those matches went beyond the 16th hole.
Against the veteran Tibbetts, Kennett was 3-down early, 1-down after 18 and he pulled even after 32 holes. The matched turned at the par 5 16th, where Tibbetts hooked driver left into the tree line and Kennett made birdie.
While not superstitious, Kennett remembers having a good-luck ball, a black Titleist No. 4. “I’d go into the pro shop and ask George (Kamal, the head pro) for a sleeve, to make sure I had one at all times that week.”
Kennett nearly defended his State-Am, reaching the finals a year later at Hanover, where he fell to Elliott.
Kennett, a Keene High basketball standout too, went on to become a two-time collegiate All-America golfer after helping St. Bernard College in Cullman, Ala. (later Southern Benedictine College) to a small-college national semifinal appearance, and dabbled on a semi-pro tour in Florida as an amateur, but three back surgeries, he said, derailed his golf aspirations.
Still, he said, “golf was awful, awful good to me. And I will never forget the army of people who rooted me on that (State-Am) week.”
Up until 1993, Kennett was the only golfer to win the State-Am at his home course. Mielcarz won at Concord in 1993 to become the second. The only other players to achieve that feat are Pleat (1997 at Nashua) and Chris Houston (2016 at Laconia).
1980: Barrett delivers at Derryfield
Hugh Barrett, by nature, is a stoic personality. But his golf game during his prime spoke loudly.
He had a decorated amateur career and turned professional following the 1981 State-Am, after losing to Phil Pleat at Laconia in a tense back-and-forth final that went 38 holes. It ended 11 consecutive match-play wins in that event.
Like Kennett, Barrett won a N.H. Schoolboy title, in 1977, beating good friend Rich Parker in extra holes at Portsmouth CC. He was 21 when he won at Derryfield, but he already had four State-Am appearances by then. By 1980, Pleat said, Barrett was considered by many as the player to beat among N.H. amateurs.
It was not an easy path to victory in Manchester; Barrett had to overcome Danny Arvanitis of the host club and another young talent, Shawn Ryan, in a match that went three extra holes. The 11-and-10 final was anti-climactic in score only; there are no gimmes in match play at the State-Am, after all.
“It was grueling,” Barrett recalls. “That year the weather was like it is here now, brutally hot and dry. But it was fun to win. For New Hampshire golfers, (winning the State-Am) is kind of like raising the Stanley Cup. It’s a trophy you want to put name on.”
When Barrett and Pleat met in the finale a year later, playing with wooden drivers, they made eight birdies each over the 38 holes and were under par for their rounds. A bogey by Barrett at the 36th hole let Pleat draw even. Then Pleat, who the day before the State-Am started that year had captured the Manchester CC Club Championship, won with a par on the 38th hole.
“I knew I had to play well to keep it close, and fortunately I did,” Pleat recalled.
Barrett defeated fellow Bretwood standout John Pawlak (also a NH schoolboy champion) and Dan Wilkins, who later turned professional.
“I just practice a lot back then; I hit a lot of balls,” said Barrett, whose family has part ownership of Bretwood Golf Course in Keene. “My intention was always to win, but it doesn’t mean you will.”
The State-Am at which Barrett said he felt he played his best was 1977, at The Balsams. An 18-year-old, he beat Jay Leonard and Pleat before losing to Mielcarz in the semifinals. Mielcarz then defeated Bretwood’s John MacAllister – Barrett’s father-in-law, and Derek’s father – in the championship match.
“I guess you could say we opened the door to his history,” Barrett said of Mielcarz and that year.
Mielcarz won again in 1978; until then there had not been a successful title defense in 18 years. Mielcarz went on to win three straight, Barrett’s win at Derryfield ending his streak.
Since Barrett’s win and so-near repeat, only two players have gone back-to-back: Don Folsom in 1986-87 and Mielcarz again, in 1995-96.
Barrett turned pro in the winter of 1981. His time at that level was short-lived, however, because of the competition and the nagging necessity of making a living.
“You play some mini-tour events and you find out you’re not that good,” Barrett chuckled. “I played with Donnie Hammond once; he had just won the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament at TPC Sawgrass (by 14 strokes). It was eye-opening. These guys were light years better than me.”
Barrett’s son, Chelso, is regarded as one of the top players to come out of these parts. He was a standout collegiate player at Texas Christian University, played professionally on the MacKenzie Tour in Canada, and is perhaps best known for reaching the finals of the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur, when he lost to PGA Tour star Jordan Spieth at Green Mountain Golf Club in Washington State, 6-and-5.
Today, he plays a limited competitive schedule while working at the Mississippi State University Golf Course in Starkville.
2004: MacAllister was ‘in the zone’
It is hard to dominate a weeklong event, but that is what Derek MacAllister, the Keene native and University of New Hampshire grad, pretty much did in 2004.
When he won at Laconia, he was playing out of Rochester CC and working in the Seacoast Region.
MacAllister said he was zoned in that week. Actually, “I was en fuego,” he said.
It had less to do with the technical aspects of his game, he said, and more to do with mental preparation and maturity.
MacAllister began playing in the event at age 14. His father, John, was a prominent state amateur, and his sister, Tamara, who is married to Hugh Barrett, toiled on the women’s circuit. She won the state juniors in 1983 and her best finish in more than a half dozen women’s state amateurs was 10th.
“The mental aspect of looking toward having a good round ... it’s a crazy thing,” MacAllister, now the assistant greens superintendent at Keene CC, said. “In the beginning when you’re real young and you see everyone so intimidated, you don’t know how to win. It takes time and getting used to playing tournaments.
“For me, it was deciding I was going to win.”
MacAllister said that change in thinking was inspired when, at age 16, he was paired in the first round with professional Kevin Giancola the year Giancola won the N.H. Open at Bretwood. Giancola began his round with a bogey and a double bogey, MacAllister said. At the 13th hole, he remembered Giancola saying to himself that he still had a lot of holes left and two more rounds. “He then played lights out the rest of the way,” MacAllister said.
“That blew my mind; it made a huge difference to me,” he said. “It’s something a lot of players don’t see. It’s not about trying to hold onto the best round ever; it’s about having more holes left.”
That shift in mindset and some work on his swing paid off.
Going to Laconia, “I figured out a way to make sure I couldn’t hit it left, my miss, and I took an attitude I was going to win. I literally made all my passwords ‘winning.’ I thought only about winning. When I practiced, I practiced thinking about how I was going to win that tournament.”
On his path to victory, MacAllister beat Bretwood veteran Mike Blair, 6-and-5, in the semifinals, going 5-up at the turn.
“I played pretty well,” Blair remembered, “but he was pretty much unbeatable that year.”
Earning the No. 7 seed in stroke play, MacAllister also eliminated Greg Sargent, Mark Baldwin, Peter Keilty and Gerald Driscoll. MacAllister was 2-down to Baldwin at one point but turned the match in his favor with a chip-in birdie at 11. Another birdie, at 14, put him 5-under for his round.
MacAllister, like Barrett, chose to give professional golf a shot. He competed on the Cleveland Tour and events in Florida during winter. But, after less than two years of expenses outpacing winnings and a front-row view to pro golf’s long line and long odds, he opted to reclaim his amateur status.
He competed in a few Seacoast Amateurs, contending in 2003 when he led late in the final round. His 66 in another Seacoast Am, at Cochecho CC in Dover, matches the low round in the history of that event.
The State-Am is a one-of-a-kind canvas. It is not starved for competition, or storylines or compelling history. Each year it delivers playoffs, upsets, grand marches, extra holes, dramatic shots, blown chances, and for two survivors one long gut-check Saturday.
Only one winning portrait emerges.
Asked to remember their moment all these years later, Paul Kennett, Hugh Barrett and Derek MacAllister did, in at times spotty but still-vivid colors and with a sense of accomplishment perhaps too long forgotten.