As Conner Willett prepares to hit the first tee shot in The Willett Cup, his sister Kaitlyn and mother Beth stand just to the right, watching intently at the first tee of Charles River CC.
Jul 10, 2024

The Willett Cup: A tournament well played for reasons that still resonate

NEWTON, Mass. -- They came. They played. They healed.

Well, maybe “healed” is a bit overstated because Beth Willett will tell you that “we still have a lot of holes in our lives.”

But, yes, those who teed it up July 2 at Charles River CC to help pay tribute to the memory of Rick Willett brought smiles and strength to the Willett family. “It was amazing to see once again such support from the golf community,” said Beth, who two summers ago was a pillar of character and dignity when her husband died tragically at age 52.

That she remains steadfast in her faith and is the personification of indomitable human spirit was the greatest takeaway from a day of quality golf and priceless camaraderie.

When first presented to her, Beth Willett thought that it might be too soon to hold the Willett Cup. “Maybe one more year,” she said. But as she stood at the first tee and watched her son, Conner, and then his closest golf friends, Ethan Whitney and Weston Jones and John Broderick, tee off, Beth Willett realized what a joy this was.

“It was in honor of Rick and it helps with the process of healing for the whole group,” she said.

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Forever it will remain a surreal experience, that sequence of events in July of 2022 that brought an enormous spectrum of emotions to the Willett family of Wellesley, Mass. – Beth, Conner and Kaitlyn – and countless people who love and admire them. There was the shock of Rick’s death on July 10, three days after he had choked on food and his heart had stopped. There was the unforgettable golf Conner had played July 11-15 in a march to become the State Amateur champion that a Hollywood script writer could not have dreamed up. And there was the intersection of exhilarating joy and gut-wrenching pain “that I remember like it was yesterday,” said Whitney.

He caddied for his great friend in that final match two years ago and when it was over, Whitney hugged the State Am champion, matching Willett tear-for-tear. Then they went home, showered, got dressed up, and prepared for a wake and a funeral to say goodbye to Rick.

That’s the backdrop, crushingly sad as it is. But then there was the Willett Cup, respectfully joyful as planned.

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There have been the expected swing of emotions, confirmed Conner Willett. “There are days when I thought I hated golf, but then there have been days when I couldn’t get out of bed if I wasn’t playing golf,” said the 2022 State Am champion, a senior-to-be at Georgetown.

He has a warm, infectious smile and a polished demeanor that grabs your attention. Golf has already provided Willett with great memories – a qualifier into the Drive, Chip, and Putt National Finals at Augusta National in 2014; winner of Mass Golf’s Young Golfers Amateur in 2016; State Amateur champion in 2022 – but the greatest reward has been the way the game has forged priceless friendships and afforded contemporaries the chance to get to know Conner’s father.

“There were a lot of opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had if not for Rick,” said Whitney. “He was like a father to me, in that sense.”

The beautiful layers to the Willett Cup were plentiful, starting with a man named Dave Adamonis, Jr. In a nutshell, hundreds of New England golfers had a chance to play competitive junior golf thanks to the work Adamonis has carried on in memory of his father, who started The Challenge Cup in 1980.

It's no hyperbole to suggest there is a “Challenge Cup Nation” and it was front and center July 2. Willett, Whitney, Jones, and Broderick – Challenge Cuppers one and all – helped give structure to Adamonis’ idea for the Willett Cup and a host of kids who came through the program didn’t hesitate to grab their clubs and show up at Charles River July 2.

Brad Adamonis, Brendan Hunter, Nick Pandelena, Joe Harney, Nick Maccario, and James Driscoll represented an older generation of Challenge Cuppers. Jack Boulger, Caleb Manuel, Ryan Downes, Joey Lenane, Aiden O’Donovan, Chris Francoeur, Morgan Smith, Emma Abramson, Davis Chatfield, Patrick Welch, Owen Quinn, and Eli Spaulding represent a younger group.

To see LPGA Tour players Megan Khang and Alexa Pano and former pro competitor Alison Walshe on hand was inspiring to Kaitlyn Willett, Conner’s sister, who hit the opening tee shot before two groups of women teed off.

Fitting that each of the nine groups included a professional, an amateur, a collegian, and a junior. It spoke to a Rick Willett strength to be admired.

“Rick was a great mentor in business and sports so we wanted the opportunity for golfers in various phases of their career to benefit from being with those earlier and later from where they are,” said Beth.

Even more fitting was the theme to each of the nine team names. They pondered names associated with colleges or sports teams or something golf-centric. But Conner stepped in and nailed it. “He said, ‘We need mountain ranges,’ ” laughed Beth, and it immediately clicked with everyone involved who knew her husband.

That’s because Rick Willett, a gregarious man and heralded story-teller who never saw a mission in life that didn’t require going full bore, loved high-octane skiing. He met Beth when they were ski team members at WPI and the family’s “happy place” was their ski house in Telluride, Colo.

It was a skiing accident in 2005 that nearly robbed Rick Willett of his life at just 36. “There was a traumatic brain injury,” said Beth, whose husband never took his recovery for granted. “(In a way), we probably got 17 extra years with him.”

Rick Willett never stopped supporting Spaulding’s Discovery Center for Brain Injury and Concussion Recovery and proceeds from the recent Willett Cup will benefit that worldly cause.

“He was a huge skier and skied all the ranges,” said Whitney. “He loved golf, of course, but we did a lot more skiing than playing golf.”

You know your golf, then you know Pebble and the Old Course, Cypress and Riviera. You know your skiing, then nod your approval at the Sierra Nevadas, Tetons, Chilkats, Wasachs, Rockies, Rangeleys, Greens, and Alps. Oh, and the San Juans.

“Of course the San Juans won,” laughed Beth, the connection being that Telluride is located in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. So when Jones, Francoeur, Harney and Tommy Murdough combined for 11-under 59 to give Team San Juans the Willett Cup, Beth Willett smiled lovingly.

“You could really feel his presence,” she said.