Conner Willett (MGA photo)
The emotions kept building and building all week for Conner Willett
. And with one final 10-foot birdie putt falling into the 16th hole on Friday, they were finally let loose.
Willett, a 19-year-old from Wellesley, playing with a heavy heart all week and a bevy of support from the Mass Golf community behind him, completed one of the most inspirational runs in Massachusetts Amateur Championship history, defeating Longmeadow teenager Ryan Downes
, 16, in the final 36-hole match, 4&2, Friday at Concord Country Club.
Willett’s father, Rick Willett, passed away unexpectedly one day before the championship began. But determined to compete and play as many holes as possible, he seemed to block everything out and put on one of the most courageous performances in the century-plus history of the championship. Playing 138 holes over five days, his gritty effort delivered him his first state amateur title.
“It means a lot,” said Willett, a member at Charles River Country Club in Newton. “It’s definitely just a lot of self-belief in there. I’ve had some couple tough years, past couple years with just golf, and I always personally thought I could do it, and then I did it this week, which was awesome. Really was a dream come true.”
Friday marked the first time two teenage players squared off in a Mass Amateur final. Willett, followed in the footsteps of fellow Wellesley native Michael Thorbjornsen, who at 19 won the Mass Amateur last year. Willett became the new owner of the Massachusetts Cup, joining luminaries such as Francis Ouimet, Fred Wright, Fran Quinn, Jr., and Frank Vana, Jr. as past winners.
But truly remarkable was the outpouring of support, including by members of Charles River, his closest friends, and his mother Beth and his sister Kaitlyn. Many of them wore blue ribbons with the initials R.W. on them.
Willett started the week with his uncle Ryan as his caddie for the first three rounds, donning a blue bib with the Charles River club logo on it. The bib was passed down to Rutgers standout Weston Jones for his match against Ethan Whitney, who made the blue ribbons. When Willett beat Whitney in the second round, the bib was passed to Whitney, who had the bag the rest of the way and provided continuous encouragement and enthusiasm the rest of the way.
“It was great, he caddied for me in the Mass Open, which I made a good run there,” Whitney said. “We both know each other’s game extremely well and just everything that’s happened this week, I just knew if he’d beat me, I had to be there for him and take it as deep as we could. I tried to just keep him calm and relaxed and just kind of focused on what he needed to do in the moment to make the best shot so he could win the match.
“I’m so happy there’s so many people who are willing to do something like that for someone because it meant the absolute world to him.”
Added Willett: “It was awesome. I mean, look at all the people here. I definitely wouldn’t have done it without them.”
Downes who entered the championship as the youngest player in the field and was trying to become the youngest winner in championship history (Charles River member James Driscoll won it at age 18 in 1996). However, he made the longest run of any member of GreatHorse in the Mass Amateur.
“Definitely it’s a great experience,” said Downes, a rising junior at Longmeadow High School. “I know I could compete with pretty much every amateur in Mass Golf now, making it to the final, and it was definitely a goal of mine at the beginning of the week. I did make a 12-footer to get into the playoffs for the last spot so it’s a long way coming. Definitely an honor to be here.”
Willett struck first with a birdie on the first hole to take the lead, but it was Ryan Downes who had command early in the morning. Downes won holes 3, 4 and 5, with pinpoint accuracy on his approach shots. With a birdie on the 13th hole, Downes held a 3-up lead.
However, Willett swung the momentum in his favor by winning the final four holes of the opening 18. Downes was unable to get up-and-down on the 15th and 16th hole, and on the par-5 17th found the right rough off the tee. Willett was on in two after hitting a stinger into the green and was able to two-putt for birdie. On the 18th, Willett hit his approach to 8 feet and his putt rolled in to take a 1-up lead.
Not to be deterred, Downes came out swinging after the midway break. The 16-year-old eagled hole 1 and took the lead with a par on the second hole.
Willett tied it again with a par on the 4th and then took the lead on the 7th hole (25th of the day) by hitting his approach 3 feet to the hole and rolling it in for birdie. He then made par on the 9th to bring it to 2-up.
Downes didn’t hit as many fairways and greens down the stretch, but he had an incredible out from the right rough on the 11th and won the hole after Willett missed the green and flubbed a chip.
On the 13th, one day after his incredible putt was featured on SportCenter’s Top 10 plays, Willett pulled off another miraculous shot. After his tee shot landed into the right fescue, he hit a 60 degree wedge that hit the front right of the green and rolled to the front. That denied Downes’ shot at winning the hole.
“Me and Ethan, we agreed on a target point and we agreed on the yardage and then just looked at the line and committed to that shot and trusted it and I hit it well and, fortunately, it stayed on the green. I don’t think it honestly should have stayed but it did.”
That shot alone rallied Willett, who won the final three to claim the trophy. Downes hit behind a tree on the 14th and was forced to pitch out. He then flew the green on his approach, and despite an incredible chip from the back of the green, was unable to salvage a half of the hole.Willett played it safely in front and then two-putted for par to win the hole.
After Willett made another two-putt par on the 15th to bring it to a 3-up dormie, Willett drove it perfectly to the front right side of the fairway. His approach hit the green and almost spun into the hole. And minutes later, Willett sank the decisive putt, pumped his fist one last time and fell into the long embrace of Whitney, followed by his friends and family.
“I was just trying to lag it up and then somehow it went in,” Willett said.
For the win, Willett took home the Massachusetts Cup, as well as a five-year exemption for the event. He’ll also play in the Ouimet Memorial Tournament, taking place July 27-29 at GreatHorse and concluding at Woodland Golf Club.