The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

With a chance to help his season, Justin Leonard takes a break for a cause

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PARAMUS, N.J. - Justin Leonard ordinarily would have played the final week of the PGA Tour's regular season, and this is one time he probably should have gone.

He likes the Wyndham Championship and typically plays well, having never missed the cut. And at No. 108 in the FedEx Cup, it would have been his last chance to improve his standing heading into the playoffs, where it's all about moving up the list and advancing to the next week.

But then he got an offer he couldn't refuse.

His wife and four kids had spent a week in Colorado the last previous two years at Camp Mati, where children with cancer and their families are afforded a brief escape from the emotional, physical and financial strain of coping with cancer. Leonard had been involved in fundraising, though his golf schedule always kept him from going.

"Last summer my kids came back and said, 'Dad, you've got to go with us,'" he said.

Leonard couldn't recall his children (ages 4, 8, 9 and 10) wanting him to do anything this badly.

"Other than play Disney, and we don't have that tournament anymore," he said with a laugh. "No, that was probably the first time. So I said that whatever I need to do, I'll do. There are more important things (than golf). And it was an amazing week."

Leonard called it the best trip of the summer. He returned to work last week having slipped to No. 115 in the FedEx Cup, and then he missed the cut at The Barclays to end his season earlier than he would have wanted.

Had he played the Wyndham Championship? He still might not have been among the top 100 who advanced to Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston this week.

That was irrelevant. This was important.

Over the years, Leonard and wife Amanda have quietly gone about their involvement in charity. From the seven President Cup and Ryder Cup teams he has played that had a charitable component, he has shared the wealth. Leonard has channeled his donations to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children and to Camp Esperanza, to the Visiting Nurse Association and to the Ark House, to the Les Turner ALS Foundation and to H.O.P.E. Farm, Inc.

"For some organizations, $20,000 is not a big deal and for others it can be half their budget," he said. "We try to stay local and spread it around pretty good."

They stumbled into Camp Mati without even looking, courtesy of a peculiar chain of events.

Jean-Mari Alpert came up with the idea for families who have a child with cancer to spend a fun week together. She cared for her mother (after whom the camp is named) for 14 years until she died of cancer. One year, Alpert went to Young Life's Trail West Family Camp in Buena Vista, Colorado with a group of Dallas families and loved it. As her mind wandered during the long drive home to Dallas, she was moved to do something for families torn apart by cancer.

"They're financially destroyed, marriages are falling apart, it's as horrific as you can imagine," Alpert said. "A lot of them haven't been on a vacation in a year. A lot of them have never been on vacation. A lot of them have never been a family."

She raised what money she could, tried to seek out families that might be interested and effectively rented the camp for a week.

A birthday party changed everything.

Alpert's children go to the same school as the Leonard clan. She knew Amanda Leonard as little more than one of the parents. They met at a birthday party for one of the kids at school, and the festivities included a hike. The two women kept up the same pace. And they started talking.

"She was telling me they wanted to find a charity close to their hearts," Alpert said. "I told her about my camp."

Alpert says she could tell Amanda Leonard wasn't immediately sold, so she challenged her to spend one week at Camp Mati to check it out for herself. That was three years ago. The Leonards now have an auction geared around a spin class in Dallas, with all proceeds going to the camp.

"We probably funded about 90 per cent of it," Justin Leonard said.

He didn't provide an amount in dollars, only in impact. Because of the support, Alpert this year was able to book another week at Trail West. She called it "Camp Nate" for families who have lost a child to cancer. That was named after Nate Oxford, a young boy who was one of the first to attend Camp Mati.

"If they didn't fundraise as much as they do, I couldn't have started the second week," Alpert said.

The families go whitewater rafting. There's a BB gun range, a ropes course and a Jeep tour. The families grow closer. They stay in touch through Facebook when they get back to Dallas. Alpert said the men have a chance to share emotions they typically keep to themselves. It can be powerful.

Leonard wasn't in Greensboro two weeks ago, where he wanted to be. He was in Colorado, where his kids wanted him to be.

"Dad, you've got to go with us."

To listen to him talk about his week at Camp Mati is to suspect that Leonard's week in Colorado brought the same measure of satisfaction as being an NCAA champion at Texas, a U.S. Amateur champion, a British Open champion at Royal Troon, a Ryder Cup hero at Brookline or anything else he has done on the golf course.

"In the beginning, I don't know if he was skeptical, but he was kind of sitting back," Alpert said. "Sometimes it takes people a little bit to warm up. For sure, he made some big connections with the kids. And by the time the week was over, he was engaging with the families. He was the last person there, talking with them into the night."

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