Rick Stimets (Massachusetts Golf Association Photo)
Ricky Stimets was only a toddler when his grandfather and local legend Dick Stimets won the Massachusetts Mid-Amateur Championship 30 years ago when this championship was co-hosted by Willowbend.
Ironically, if Ricky was 32 back then, he wouldn’t have been eligible — neither would several of the players currently leading this year’s competition to this point. But as he and others would attest, the game and the competitive format have changed immeasurably since this event was introduced 40 years ago.
With stormy weather making way for bright skies and a course in immaculate shape, Stimets climbed to the top of the leaderboard Tuesday at Willowbend by shooting a 5-under 65 in the opening round of the annual middle ground championship. Kevin Gately, who was playing in the group ahead of Stimets, is one back after making seven birdies. Brad Cadigan made birdie four times and sits in solo third at even-par 70, while a handful of players sit 1-2 strokes behind him.
The second round begins at 7:45 a.m. Wednesday. The field will be cut to the low 30 and ties for Thursday’s final round.
On a course where trouble is consistently lurking, Stimets made it look easy on Tuesday. He made birdie on three of the final four holes coming down the stretch, including the final hole. He fired a bullet over the trees that flank the left side of the hole, and the ball came to rest just a few steps from the penalty area that leads into a cranberry bog. Hitting a short pitch downwind, he left it within 5 feet and made the putt to finish with a 65, just minutes after his good friend Gately came in with a 66.
“There’s a lot of hazards out of bounds here, and luckily, I didn’t find any of it,” said Stimets, whose lone bogey came on the 4th hole (Bay). “I was only out of position one hole (4th). It’s the toughest hole. You can’t go left or right, and the wind just took it. I took my medicine and made bogey. I putted well today, and in the wind, that helps.”
When Stimets’ grandfather won in 1993, wind gusts reached up to 50mph in the opening round, yet he managed to shoot 2-under 70 in the second round to win by seven strokes. While there was less than half that amount of wind Tuesday, this would be a fitting place and time for Stimets to cap off what is arguably his best season since regaining his amateur status.
Stimets, who lives a short drive from the course, was low amateur (T5 overall) in the Mass Open along with runner-up finishes in the Mass Four-Ball and Hornblower Memorial. That plus other strong finishes has put him first in the race for the Richard D. Haskell Player of the Year Award by over 200 points, and a win here would give him his first Mass Golf championship title and Player of the Year Award.
“I’m trying to get on a fourth of the trophies that his name is on,” Stimets said of his grandfather. “I’ve played well all summer and hopefully [I can] continue it here this week.”
Gately, who at age 28 is a few years into the Mid-Amateur experience, also demonstrated mastery of Willowbend, except he hadn’t played the course outside of a U.S. Challenge Cup event and practice round.
Aside from advancing to U.S. Open Final Qualifying back in May, Gately hasn’t made too much noise on the statewide scene this year but made a big splash Tuesday with five birdies on his opening nine, including an early chip-in, to shoot 66.
“This is a big one for me,” said Gately, who finished T13 in last year’s Mid-Amateur. “I’m very happy to be a mid-amateur at this point, and I haven’t won anything on the Mass Golf circuit, so I’m really looking forward to that first one, and I hope it’s this week.”
Like Stimets, Gately had high praise for the course conditions. “When I played my practice round it was wet, and the place was still in amazing shape,” he said. “I knew how much it rained last night, and it was crazy how good the greens were.”
Gately was uber-consistent in last year’s mid-amateur at Marlborough Country Club with scores of 73-72-72. Though a few bogeys on the back nine knocked him out of the lead Tuesday, he’s hoping to keep putting himself in position to score throughout this championship.
“You have to stay on your stuff around this place,” Gately said. “I got a little tight being as far under as I was. It was all mental mistakes, which is tough, but if I keep it sharp and keep it in play, I should be alright.”
Sean Fitzpatrick kicked off his title defense by shooting 74 and finishing the day T14 overall. Mike Calef, the 2011 winner, is leading all past champions after carding a 71 while rocking attire from Sleepy Hollow, which hosted the 2023 U.S. Mid-Amateur last week. With a pair of birdies, he finishes the day T4 with Christopher Poli.
Sitting in between Calef and Fitzpatrick is Alex Jeffers, who made a pair of birdies and was relatively steady throughout the round to finish 3-over. Jeffers has placed in the top 10 twice in recent years (2016, 3rd; 2019, T9) and is pleased to be in contention once more and will try to make the cut for the first time since 2019.
“The golf course, you know, a couple of holes of in was going to be challenging,” Jeffers said. “It seems like a couple of guys went low, but I’m still in it. If you grind and make a bunch of pars, you’re probably not going to shoot yourself out of it.”
Chalk up the best finish of the day to Zachary Kovat. He started the round 7-over through 13 holes, perhaps chalking it up to not having played for a week leading up to the event. But all of a sudden he caught fire. After a birdie on the downhill par-3 15th, Kovat had 104 yards in on the 16th and spun a gap wedge off the back fringe and into the cup for the lone eagle carded on Tuesday. After sinking an incredible 25-footer for birdie on the 17th, Kovat decided to go for the green on the 18th, which had derailed some otherwise strong rounds. That was not his fate as he left it about 10 feet, and his eagle putt stayed out by mere inches, giving him a tap-in for a 2-under 72 and a share of T7.
“I just took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that it’s just golf, the birdies are out there, and you can roll some putts in here,” said Kovat, who made the quarterfinals of the 2022 Rhode Island Amateur. “Thank goodness I flipped the switch because I was looking at 80 and shooting myself out of it.”View results for Massachusetts Mid-Amateur