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Course becomes sanctuary as Wellesley’s Conner Willett wins Mass Amateur days after losing his dad

Conner Willett (right) and his caddie Ethan Whitney celebrate Willett's victory in the Massachusetts Amateur Championship at Concord Country Club Friday.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

CONCORD — A large and supportive gallery of friends and family wearing blue ribbons with the initials “R.W.” walked alongside Conner Willet for each step of Friday’s Massachusetts Amateur Final.

Finally, on the 16th green — and the 34th hole of the championship match — emotions flowed out of the 19-year-old from Wellesley, joining a chorus of those who clapped and cheered for him after each shot.

Willett captivated the Massachusetts golf community by winning the 114th Amateur title, 4 and 2, over Ryan Downes at Concord Country Club, his inspiring victory coming five days after his father, Richard, died unexpectedly.


“It feels awesome, definitely, to do it this week,” said Willett, who plays out of Charles River Country Club in Newton.

“The timing of this is pretty awesome. Look at all the people here, I wouldn’t have done it without them. I want to thank my family for blocking out all the details this week.”

According to the Globe’s obituary, Richard Willett died Sunday at the age of 52 due to complications from a choking incident.

Conner opted to play in the first round of the Mass Am Monday. He made Tuesday’s stroke play cut by four shots, won a pair of matches on both Wednesday and Thursday, then outlasted Downes in a back-and-forth affair Friday to become the second-consecutive Wellesley golfer to win the title after Michael Thorbjornsen’s victory last summer.

Willett said his goal for the week was to keep playing golf, the course becoming a sanctuary during a time of tragedy.

“I didn’t want to go home,” he said. “I just wanted to play as much golf as possible and be out here as long as possible. I haven’t been able to eat. It was just a battle of grit.”

Conner Willett had only played in one previous Mass Amateur before winning the 114th championship at Concord Country Club.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Willett, a rising sophomore at Georgetown, won his Round of 32 matchup Wednesday in 20 holes over Nick McLaughlin, then defeated his friend — and caddie for the final two days — Ethan Whitney in the Round of 16 later that afternoon.


On Thursday, he was 3 down to Christian Emmerich through four holes before rallying for a 2-up quarterfinal victory. His semifinal win over Billy Argus was highlighted by an improbable birdie putt on the par-4 13th that broke 20 feet from left to right and landed in the No. 3 slot on Thursday’s SportsCenter Top 10.

“The lord works in mysterious ways,” said Whitney. “There were bounces this week and he looked at me and said ‘Thanks Rick.’ He’s definitely smiling up there and is super proud of him. I don’t know how he did it.”

Willett had to battle back again on Friday against Downes, a 16-year-old from Longmeadow who was vying to become the youngest player to win the Mass Am.

Behind strong iron play, Downes was 3 up through 14 holes. But Willett dug deep and won the final four holes of the first 18 to take a 1-up advantage. Downes responded by taking the first two holes of the second 18.

With the match tied on the par-4 seventh-hole, Willet stuck a wedge within four feet and made birdie for a lead he would never relinquish. A steady par on the ninth gave him a 2-up cushion before his birdie putt on the par-4 16th clinched the title.


“Conner played a hell of a round and it was fun to watch,” said Downes. “He was so deserving.”

After watching the birdie putt drop on 16, Willett and Whitney shared a lengthy embrace. Friends from Wellesley and Charles River poured onto the green for more congratulations. Finally, his mother, Beth, and sister, Kaitlyn, emerged from the gallery. The trio stood off the green with their arms wrapped around one another.

“It was one of the more emotional things I’ve ever seen on a golf course,” said Whitney. “It’s amazing how great people can be.”

Willett played in his first Mass Am as a 14-year-old, but didn’t qualify again until this year. He said his game was in a bad place until a recent bout of self confidence, inspired by Richard, an avid golfer himself.

“This means a lot,” said Willett. “I’ve had a couple tough years golf-wise and I always thought I could do it. It really was a dream come true.”