Legendary Massachusetts golf pro killed by falling tree

Tom Sullivan, popular longtime Western Massachusetts golf pro, was killed by a falling tree Wednesday October 7 at the Berkshire County country club he had spent more than two decades golfing at.

HARTFORD, Conn. – Whenever I saw Tom Sullivan approaching, I knew I was in store for an infectious smile and plenty of cordial words. So while Sullivan’s tragic death on Wednesday was stunning, the manner in which it happened told you all you needed to know about one of the best people in the history of mankind.

Sullivan died when his golf cart was hit by a falling tree as he tried to alert players on the course at Wyantenuck Country Club in Great Barrington, Mass., that a dangerous thunderstorm with high winds was approaching. After the storm went through the area, a neighbor reported there was a cart on a dirt access road alongside the course with a tree laying on top of it. When two police officers arrived, they found Sullivan besides the cart. They tried first aid but could not revive the native of Worcester, Mass., who had been the Wyantenuck pro for the past 21 years.

So Tom Sullivan, one of the most personable, respected and upbeat people on the planet, lost his life while trying to do his duty to ensure everyone on the course had taken shelter, as he always did.

Sullivan was 71 when he died about two hours after playing host to the Northeastern New York PGA Tour Championship, the section’s season-ending event that ended around 3 p.m. When a storm swept through western Massachusetts later in the afternoon, Sullivan’s cart was struck by several trees and branches. The force of the storm knocked out power to a peak of about 240,000 electric customers in the state, according to the Emergency Management Agency.

Tom Sullivan of Wyantenuck Country Club hits his ball out of a sand trap on the 18th hole during the Northeastern New York PGA Pro Classic 3 at Pinehaven Country Club on Monday, June 22, 2020 in Guilderland, N.Y.

The recipient of numerous NENYPGA awards, Sullivan is known for being the last member of the Connecticut Section PGA to make the cut in what is now the Travelers Championship, having finished 78th in the 1995 Canon Greater Hartford Open won by World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman. Whenever I had seen Tom since then, I smiled and said, “You’re still the last section guy to make the Travelers cut.” He immediately smiled right back, obviously recalling four memorable days at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell that were at the top of his playing resume and experience of a lifetime.

“I just remember how fun it was, how I enjoyed every minute of it,” Sullivan recalled two years ago. “Tim Tunstall was my caddie, it was so hot, but I remember my dad, who was 82, and Bill Barry’s dad walked every hole with us.”

Sullivan was elected to the NENYPGA Hall of Fame in 2018, voted the section’s PGA Professional of the Year, was winner of the Teacher of the Year and twice received the Roland Stafford Award for integrity, honesty and sportsmanship. He also was on the section’s board of directors.

“I guess it kind of means that I’ve done the job that I am supposed to,” Sullivan said when inducted into the NENYPGA Hall of Fame. “I’m not one of those award-type guys. They kind of caught me off guard with this one, and it was a little overwhelming to me at first that I would be considered for a Hall of Fame.

“It kind of tells me that I chose the right path, and my decision to become a golf pro years ago has turned out to be fortunate. To be honored with a great group of guys who are in the Hall already is just special. Next to my marriage and children, it’s the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.”

Barely two hours after hosting a regional tournament, shown here presenting a check and trophy to winner Eric Mabee, popular western Massashachusetts golf pro Tom Sullivan was struck and killed by a falling tree while looking out for the safety of golfers at his course at Wyantenuck Country Club on October 7.

Sullivan, who also spent 12 years at Quaboag Country Club in Monson, Mass., was especially pleased to have been recognized by his golfing cohorts.

“When you are voted on by your peers for anything, I think it is extra special because I look at guys and go, ‘I want to be like him and like him,’ and sometimes you watch how they do things and you don’t realize that they’re actually watching you,” Sullivan said. “All the jobs are different, but they strive to do the same thing. They strive to make their members happy, they strive to teach well, they strive to make the golf club a fun place to be and a place that people want to show up to.

“I like all my members to be my friends. They’re all good people. You help them with their golf game and you go out and play with them. Being the club professional here is just an amazing tribute not only to me, but to my staff and to my club. My staff has a lot to do with that because they’re good people and they do a great job and they make you look good. It’s a tribute to Wyantenuck Golf Club.”

Sullivan’s love for golf started when he became a caddie as a teenager. He was well-respected in the local golf community, and many other pros sought tips to improve their game from someone whose mantra was “there’s no cost to say ‘hi’ and make someone smile. If I can make some feel better, to make their day better? They’re out here to play golf at a great golf course and to enjoy themselves. That’s pretty easy to do here.”

John Nowobilski, who retired last year after 42 years at a head pro, the last 35 at Tallwood CC in Hebron, became close friends with Sullivan when he took the job at Wyantenuck. Nowobilski’s father, Harry used to caddie at the club, and many cousins and family friends are still members.

“It was my home away from home,” said Nowobilski, who has won numerous Connecticut Section PGA awards, including the 2020 Patriot Award, given to a professional who personifies patriotism through the game, including teaching veterans with disabilities in the PGA HOPE (Helping Out Patriots Everywhere) Program. “Tom greeted myself and my family like we were royalty. He was an annual participant in my dad’s memorial golf tournament since the beginning. I learned a lot from watching his demeanor with his members. His death is still hard for me to process.”

On the course, Sullivan won the NENYPGA Donald Ross Classic in 2015, the Senior Stroke Play Championship in 2002 and 2012 and the Senior Professional Championship in 2015.
Richard Lord, a golf writer and former sports editor for The Berkshire Eagle, said Sullivan was close to retiring.

“He was probably the most popular pro in (Berkshire) county,” Lord told The Eagle. “The nicest guy in the world. There’s nobody in the county who was more liked in the golf world.”

Sullivan is survived by his wife, Kathy, and their two children, Sarah, 19, and Ryan, 18. A GoFundMe page has been set up to assist the family with tuition costs.

Worked as sports writer for The Hartford Courant for 38 years before retiring in 2008. His major beats at the paper were golf, the Hartford Whalers, University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball, Yale football, United States and World Figure Skating Championships and ski columnist. He has covered every PGA Tour stop in Connecticut since 1971, along with 30 Masters, 25 U.S. Opens, four PGA Championships, 12 Deutsche Bank Championships, 15 Westchester (N.Y.) Classics and four Ryder Cups. He has won several Golf Writers Association of America writing awards, including a first place for a feature on John Daly, and was elected to the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. He also worked for the Connecticut Whale hockey team for two years when they were renamed by former Hartford Whalers managing general partner Howard Baldwin, who had become the marketing director of the Hartford Wolf Pack, the top affiliate of the New York Rangers.

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