By all accounts, a medical miracle is allowing Mike Mottola to tee it up with longtime friend Daniel Koerner in the 7th U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship that begins on Saturday at the Country Club of Birmingham.
You might even call it a medical mulligan.
Seven years ago, doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, one of the world’s leading oncology facilities, put Mottola into a medically induced coma. Diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, Mottola was in such a dire situation at age 25 that family and friends were called to the intensive-care unit as last rites were administered.
Teary-eyed loved ones took pictures at his bedside, hoping they wouldn’t be the last images of him alive.
Seven days into what seemed like a lifetime, doctors removed his breathing tube. It was the moment of truth.
Maybe it was his indefatigable spirit, fate, or the power of youth, but Mottola’s condition miraculously improved.
“While in the coma, I had these really intense dreams,” Mottola recalled. “In my mind, I was sitting in a comfy chair and there were people coming around telling me how much they loved me.”
Mottola was far from cured, but his family didn’t need to plan a funeral, either.
A procedure that employed his own stem cells and an experimental drug still in a clinical trial offered hope for survival. He also had a golf ball-sized tumoroid removed from his shoulder.
Within a year, Mottola, albeit with a limp in his left leg, a byproduct of his cancer treatments, returned to competitive golf. Last August, he and Koerner qualified for their first USGA championship, shooting a 7-under-par 65 at GreatHorse in Hampden, Mass.
“It’s completely inspirational,” said Koerner, five years Mottola’s senior, who grew up competing against him at Merrimack Valley Golf Club in Methuen, Mass., 30 miles north of Boston. “I was just happy to be able to play golf with him again.”
It all began in October 2014, when Mottola began to feel sharp pains. At first, he didn’t think they were cause for concern. But when his whole body shuddered, he realized this wasn’t going to be eliminated by over-the-counter medications. At the time, the only way for him to get comfortable was by sliding into a bathtub of water. The last straw came after he spent six hours competing in a charity golf tournament. His parents drove him to a local hospital for evaluation.
Doctors misdiagnosed Mottola’s condition, thinking he had mononucleosis. When the condition worsened, he went to another hospital. The next morning, a physician’s assistant told him the shocking news.
“Sorry about your cancer diagnosis, but we’re going to get you into Boston [Medical] Center to start your treatment,” the PA informed Mottola. “Nobody even pulled me aside. It was crazy.”
To complicate matters, Mottola had just given two weeks’ notice to his employer because he had accepted a new job. That meant his health insurance was two weeks from expiring.
Mottola applied to go onto the Massachusetts State Health Plan, but there was a one-week waiting period before the government insurance kicked in.
To help defray medical costs, a former teammate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., created a GoFundMe account.
Mottola took no chances, staying in a bubble at home while taking a chemotherapy cocktail that pumped the treatment into his body.
“Basically, I couldn’t come in [to the hospital] with any complications or it was going to cost me thousands of dollars,” said Mottola, who was now unemployed and living with his parents.
Four months later, Mottola thought the ordeal was over. Doctors told him the cancer was in remission and he could resume regular activities, including golf. On Memorial Day weekend of 2015, despite his weakened state, Mottola managed to win a four-ball event at his home course, Merrimack Valley, with good friend Steve Deschene.
That night at a family cookout, things turned for the worse. Mottola tripped and fell walking out to the patio and after he waved it off as a one-off incident, he started driving home. On a small side street, he went to brake, only to miss the pedal and rear-end another vehicle.
“I called my mom,” he recalled. “I had this jarring sensation all over my body. It was back to the time in the bathtub.”
More tests ensued. Needles were injected into each muscle to see how his nerves were reacting.
“They did a million different things, but [doctors] said it wasn’t cancer,” said Mottola. “It was a wait-and-see approach and more meds.”
A few days later, one of his Boston Medical Center physicians told Mottola he needed to get to Dana-Farber for further evaluation. He wasn’t at the facility more than a few hours when the results were returned. He had CNS (central nervous system) cancer. Without treatment, the survival rate is 1½ months. With treatment, the five-year survival rate is 30 percent, but the cancer often returns.
Dana-Farber threw every possible form of chemo at Mottola, which in turn reduced his white-blood cell to the point where he could have died from the common cold.
A month later, Mottola was planning to watch his buddies play in a July 4 golf tournament when he felt ill. There was swelling in his brain and his body temperature hit 104 degrees.
Dana-Farber oncologists decided to put him into the medically induced coma, hoping it would only last two days at the worst. Mottola’s condition kept getting worse, though, and the doctors weren’t optimistic. Days passed without much good news. Mottola kept battling.
“Instead of fading into a peaceful death, I just kept fighting and fighting,” said Mottola when asked about his remarkable awakening and recovery.
After Mottola was discharged from the hospital, his father, Joe, who had his own medical battle with diabetes, asked his son’s medical team if he was ever going to play golf again.
The pair shared two loves: golf and the Boston Celtics.
Months came and went. Weak from all the chemo and still fighting for survival, Mottola was itching to get back on the golf course. On a crisp, early December day, the sun was out, and temperatures creeped into the 40s. Not ideal golf weather, but Joe Mottola wanted one more day on the course with his son. The family home sits just off Merrimack Valley’s ninth hole, a par 3 that Mike has aced three times, usually with a 9-iron or pitching wedge. On this day, he needed a 6-iron to reach the green, his ball stopping 10 feet from the hole.
“My father and I just started crying,” Mottola recalled. “I hugged him. He told me, ‘This might be your last shot and I want you to have the ball.’”
Over the next year, Mottola continued to fight. Stem cell surgery and an experimental drug that was still in a clinical trial at the time improved his condition. In February 2017, two close friends bought him a ticket to see the New England Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. He flew down to Houston and witnessed one of the great postseason comebacks, as New England rallied from a 28-3 second-half deficit to win in overtime.
“That was a special moment for me,” said Mottola. “It was motivating and inspirational.”
Upon his return to Massachusetts, Mottola hit physical therapy hard. His health was improving and the chance to play competitive golf again consumed him. He qualified for the Massachusetts Mid-Amateur and started seeing signs of his game returning to form. Walking was still difficult from nerve damage in his left knee/ankle, but his drives were going 275-280 yards. Koerner said his game might be better now than before the cancer.
Mottola was selling real estate with his mother, Rose, in nearby Andover when a former employer called about a commercial lending position at Cambridge Savings Bank. That’s when he met his fiancée, Kelsey Rose-Sinclair, through a mutual friend. Kelsey lost her father to cancer, and Mike’s older sister, Jennifer, had just been diagnosed with acute myloid leukemia (the 37-year-old who was Koerner’s high school prom date has since beaten it, thanks to Dana-Farber).
“Kelsey worked at Harvard and our [bank’s] headquarters are in Harvard Square,” said Mottola. “We hit it off right away. She is going to caddie for me [at the Four-Ball]. She’s a gym nut and it’s a nice four-day [or longer] workout.”
With the cancer completely in remission – meditation and yoga provide holistic therapy – Mottola, now 33, filed an entry for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball. He thought Koerner was the perfect fit, given their personalities and friendship. Mottola always looked up to Koerner growing up at Merrimack Valley, and they often competed for club championships. As a sidenote, they are getting married two weeks apart in September.
That day, Mottola was on his game early, playing 4-under-par golf over the first 11 holes. But fatigue started to set in. A long wait on the par-3 third – their 12th hole of the day – further drained Mottola’s stamina. He hit an awful tee shot, but Koerner, 38, told his buddy not to worry. He birdied the fourth hole, knocked a hybrid from 245 yards to 8 feet to set up a two-putt birdie on No. 8 and nearly aced the par-3 ninth to complete their 65.
That final birdie helped them avoid a playoff against Bay State stalwarts Matt Parziale (2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion) and Herbie Aikens, who came in with a 66 for first-alternate status.
A wave of excitement and emotion hit Mottola and Koerner as they walked arm-in-arm up the steep hill to the clubhouse. Fellow competitors congratulated them.
Just a few years earlier, Mottola was on his death bed. Now he was heading to a USGA championship with one of his best friends.
Perhaps one more miracle is in store.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.