CONCORD, Mass – Winning the prestigious title of Massachusetts Amateur champion, now in its 114th edition, is an extreme test of physical and mental durability unlike any other competition. When the final putt is holed, the winner would play 144 holes over five days, that includes the 36-hole qualifier, four 18-hole matches followed up with the 36-hole final match.
When 19-year-old Conner Willett edged Ryan Downes 4 & 2 on the 16th green – and 34th hole of the championship match – at Concord Country Club July 15, his victory was even more impressive because his father, Richard Willett, died unexpectedly at age 52 on July 10, one day before the start of the biggest tournament of his rising golf career.
The heartbroken youngster discussed the decision to play or withdraw with his mom, Beth, and sister, Kaitlyn. Despite a somewhat unremarkable amateur career to date the family made a decision that Conner should play and it’s one they’ll forever cherish.
Last week Conner Willett, of Charles River CC, captivated the golf community in Massachusetts and beyond not only by playing through the heartache, but by winning the esteemed Arthur G. Lockwood Trophy, one of the longest-running amateur championships in the United States. After his semi-final win, Conner pointed to a conversation he had with his father that helped him get his mind right to play for the Bay State’s most coveted crown, and his incredible, courageous accomplishment.
“It changed my whole attitude, and I’ve just been kind of rolling since then,” said Willett, a sophomore at Georgetown University. “I haven’t thought about my swing in over a month. I just walk out there and just keep doing the same thing.”
“I was really anxious and really nervous going into rounds,” the Wellesley native added. “I was really scared of shooting 80, and my dad just gave me a boost of motivation just to be the top dog and just have the confidence or have a little positive self-talk, and it definitely paid off.”
During the six-plus-hour finals match, a large and supportive gallery of friends, including his mom and sister walked alongside Conner wearing blue ribbons with the initials “R.W.” After the teenager tapped in the winning 10-foot birdie putt, he celebrated with a huge fist pump, and the emotions flowed out bonding with an extended chorus of clapping and cheering.
His caddy, Ethan Whitney, shared a lengthy embrace. Conner’s friends from Wellesley and Charles River CC poured onto the green for more hugs and high-fives. Finally, his mother, Beth, and sister, Kaitlyn, emerged from the gallery. The threesome stood off the green with their arms wrapped around one another. The tears and sniffles were plentiful.
“It was one of the more emotional things I’ve ever seen on a golf course,” said Whitney, who qualified and was beaten by his close friend in the round of 16. “It’s amazing how great people can be.”
In my five decades around golf, I have never witnessed such a sweeter, more tender moment, than Conner Willett respectfully receiving hugs from his family and friends on that 16th green at Concord CC. It didn’t turn into a total tear-fest but all-present were feeling the hurt inside. The emotions were real and although you can’t feel Conner Willett’s pain, one wonders if perhaps the golf course served as a temporary sanctuary for five amazing days since his dad’s passing.
Conner Willett’s story is both tragic and triumphant. According to an obituary posted in the Boston Globe, Richard David Willett, Jr. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/bostonglobe/name/richard-willett-obituary?id=35764793
died due to complications from a choking incident July 10, and his wake was held July 15, two hours after Conner’s Mass Amateur victory. Mr. Willet’s funeral service was held July 16, less than 24 hours after Conner was crowned champion of the 2022 Massachusetts Amateur.
MASS AMATEUR NOTEBOOK
- Ryan Downes, (16) of Great Horse, is a senior at Longmeadow High School, had a chance to become the youngest-ever Mass Amateur champion.
- Ryan Downes father, Billy Downes, is the head golf professional at Great Horse (Hampden), and his uncle, Bobby Downes, is head professional at Country Club of Wilbraham.
- Defending champion Michael Thorbjornsen, did not compete due to a schedule conflict and Conner Willett becomes the second-consecutive Wellesley golfer to win the title.
- At the awards ceremony Mass Golf Executive Director Jesse Menachem noted a “youth movement” this year and said Essex County Club (Manchester) will host the 2023 Mass Amateur July 10-14.
- Ryan Downes shot 8-over in the 36-hole qualifier, then survived an 11-players seeking 10-postions in a playoff playoff to secure a top-32 and he was seeded No. 32.
- Conner Willett made the cut by four strokes and was seeded No. 9.
- At 19 years, 7 months and 25 days old, Conner Willett is the youngest Mass Amateur champion since Jim Salinetti won in 1997 at 19 years, 4 months and 23 days old.
- Conner Willett is the first Charles River CC member to win the Mass Amateur since James Driscoll did so in 1996 and 1998.
- Ethan Whitney shot 4-over to qualify as No. 8 seed and then lost to his close friend, Conner Willett in the round of 16, caddied for him the remaining matches.
- Halfway through the final match between the two teenagers a female volunteer from Concord CC commented. “The storylines here give me goosebumps, and make me tear up when I think about Conner and what he’s going through heavy-heart and-all.”
“That was ideal. Whoever lost was going to caddy for the other, so it turned out I beat him, fortunately, it was a good match. But yeah, it was really fun. I mean, we’ve played together a bunch, definitely every week, almost every single day, so it kind of just felt like any normal round out there.”
– Conner Willett on having Ethan Whitney as his caddy.
“There was a couple bounces today that Conner just looked at me and just was like, ‘Thanks, Rick.’ He was definitely smiling up there for sure and was super proud of him.”
– Ethan Whitney on the influence of his father, Richard Willett on his win.
“I learned that I could be really patient, even when I make some mistakes and still play good golf. I played pretty well for the majority of the week, maybe apart from half of the second round, made a couple mistakes but I felt like especially during match play, I was really patient and it kind of paid off pretty well.”
– Ryan Downes on what he learned about himself.
“I did sleep pretty well actually. That’s something, normally it doesn’t happen sleeping with a big kind of event coming up. But there’s definitely some nerves, opening tee shot was definitely a little nervous. But I think it was definitely a little better than what I have been in. I’ve been in some pretty tough situations so I kind of knew what to expect.”
– Ryan Downes on his nerves heading into the final round.
“It was a remarkable week in many different ways. First and foremost, Connor Willett, his entire family, our thoughts are with him. For him to persevere through this week and be a champion in more ways than one is truly special. And I think what we see here, 100 people around, interviews, supporting him, supporting Ryan Downes, that’s community. That’s what amateur golf is all about. And that’s just here locally. Throughout the week, we’ve seen support regionally, nationally. He’s been recognized for what he’s been able to do on the golf course but as a person, as a family member, as a son, something that’s special that I think many of us can relate to. And I think it speaks volumes about what we have here Mass Golf, what we have as amateur golfers, and really what we have to look forward to. So again, thoughts with the Willetts but a lot to look forward to in the year ahead. And we thank you all for being with us this week at Concord Country Club.”
– Jesse Menachem, Mass Golf Executive Director/CEO.
Credit: Mass Golf communications team contributed to this report. Some photography by David Colt Photography.