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Tom Sullivan’s impact on golfers of all abilities reached just about every corner of the state and beyond. As much as he loved the game, he made it a life mission to make sure others could enjoy it, too.
Whether he was coaching beginners, competitive amateurs or fellow professionals, he was admired by so many for his direct and unique approaches to diagnosing and fixing problems with the golf swing, for his kind and easygoing spirit, and his willingness to spend as much time as necessary to make sure others were properly taken care of on his watch.
Sullivan, affectionately known as “Sully”, was looking out for others when he died last Wednesday during a storm when a tree fell onto his golf cart while he was making sure the course was clear of players. He was 71. He is survived by his wife, Kathy, their daughter Sarah R. Sullivan (19) and their son Ryan A. Sullivan (18). He is also survived by two brothers, Paul and Kenneth and his sister Ursula as well as numerous nieces, nephews and other extended family members and friends.
Tracy Warner, Executive Director of the Northeastern New York PGA, said as much as Sullivan loved golf, he beamed with pride when discussing his family. Therefore, she set up an online fundraiser for his family that has already raised over $50,000.
“I think that just is a testament to who Tom was,” Warner said. “He made you feel important. It’s so incredibly awesome to see that care returned to his family.”
Out of all the places he’d been, Wyantenuck Country Club in Great Barrington won his heart the longest. Sullivan became Wyantenuck’s head golf professional in Spring 1999 and never left. He had never played the course prior, but from the beginning, delivered on the promise that those who visited the course in the Berkshires would enjoy themselves.
By the end, he was booked solid with people who wanted to learn from him.
“He was always trying to help somebody play the game,” said Jack Dezieck, former President of both Mass Golf and Wyantenuck CC. “People come [to Wyantenuck] just to take lessons from him.”
Those lessons produced tremendous results, often through hours upon hours of 1-on-1 work. But sometimes, it only took one swing, as current Mass Golf President and Wyantenuck member Thomas R. Berkel recalled:
“Sully dropped four golf balls in the bunker at the Wyantenuck practice area. He asked me to call out a target hole on the practice green that I would aim for. I took my first swing; the ball came up out of the bunker, landed on the green and rolled into the hole. Sully, chuckled, turned to me and said, ‘Thanks for coming over; have a good day!'”
Despite being located in the far southwest corner of Massachusetts, Wyantenuck became a regular host of amateur events, including the 2011 Massachusetts Amateur Championship, 2004 Mass. Junior Amateur and the 2009 New England Senior Amateur. Sullivan was always present at these events, observing swings and making sure folks enjoyed themselves, even down to making sure they were fed properly.
“Sully has been one of the strongest ambassadors of the game for the state and around the region,” said Jesse Menachem, Executive Director/CEO of Mass Golf. “He was just a champion of amateur events, growing the game through youth golf and being a friendly representative. Whether you needed a quick tune-up or advice, he was always there to help.”
Sullivan, ranked by Golf Digest as the No. 2 instructor in Massachusetts in 2012, also spent many years helping the NENY PGA Board of Directors with training and hiring as well as youth golf initiatives. In 2017, he was named the NENY PGA Instructor of the Year and inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame the following year.
“Everybody loved Tom,” said 17-time LPGA Champion Dottie Pepper, who severed on the NENY PGA Board as an independent member. “He was a tireless advocate for junior golf and for providing the kids in Western Mass a chance to compete in section events at their home courses, not always having to travel across the border to find tournaments. My husband was paired with Tom in a section pro-am and so enjoyed Tom’s easy way, genuine concern for how others were doing and how he loved golf history.”
Among Sullivan’s most notables disciples was Lee native Jim Salinetti, who won the Massachusetts Amateur Championship in 1997, 1999 and 2000. Already a highly-regarded junior player, Salinetti was 16 when he began taking lessons with Sullivan in 1994. Back then, Sullivan was a golf professional at Quaboag Country Club in Monson, and though there was no separate range there, Salinetti said Sullivan liked doing most of his teaching on the course. He found out quickly that Sullivan was the right coach for him.
“I was one of the best players in the state, and he was a better player than me,” Salinetti said. “You’d go to him for a lesson and next thing for you know, it’d be an hour or four hours. Sully was that kind of guy that I wouldn’t leave until he said, ‘I’ve got to go.'”
Sullivan had connections all across Massachusetts and New England and would help Salinetti set up practice rounds and helped him enter events with confidence and poise.
“He put you in a good mindset where you would just be focused on hitting good golf shots,” Salinetti said. “He could teach it where he wouldn’t complicate it.”
Even if he couldn’t travel, he’d make sure to congratulate Salinetti if he played well or won.
“By the time I’d get back from a tournament, there was almost always a message from Sully at my parent’s house,” Salinetti said. “He would call the golf shop and get the results.”
Salinetti has gone on to become the head golf professional at Winchester Country Club and credits Sullivan for helping him excel on that side of the business. Even his legendary lessons are being passed on today.
“He taught me how to use my eyes properly right before I hit a putt, and it completely changed my golf game,” Salinetti said. “I still give that tip to a lot of my good players. That’s the reason why I’m a good putter.”
Shayne Grier, a Mass Golf Rules Official and former PGA TOUR caddy, also admired Sullivan’s putting abilities and his demonstration of the putting stroke.
“Having seen the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, et al. up close, I’d rank Tom as one of the top 10 putters I’ve ever seen,” Grier said.
Sullivan’s familiarity with noted golfers began from an early age. Born in Leicester, he served as a caddy at Worcester Country Club and Pleasant Valley Country Club, where he came across the likes of Mass Golf Hall of Famer Paul Harney. “He took a shine to me, and I helped him out at his golf course,” Sullivan once said. “He gave me quite a few pointers and looked after me.”
As Sullivan noted in his Hall of Fame induction speech, he always wanted to be a golf professional, but it took a while as he wasn’t good enough to make the golf team at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury. Instead, he played baseball and basketball, the latter being the only sport he perhaps loved more than golf. He attended Seminole Junior College and returned to Massachusetts to begin work as a golf professional.
Sullivan lived on Cape Cod for many years, working at Paul Harney’s course in Falmouth, as well as the Club at New Seabury. In addition to working, he played on the New England Pro Circuit and won several minitour events. He was also a multi-time winner of the Cape Cod Senior Open.
“Tommy had the most copied, impressive shoulder turn of any golfer I had ever seen or played with,” said Mickey Herron, the New England PGA Tournament Manager for the Cape Cod chapter. “But, more than that, he was a fierce competitor and was always picked to win when playing in the old Cape Cod Pro Am League. My most clear memory of his golf game? He was the straightest, longest driver.”
“Tom was one of the really good guys in the industry,” added Geoff Converse, a longtime sportswriter and golf coach on Cape Cod. “He was also one of the funniest guys. He could be playing golf and not playing well and he’d still maintain that sense of humor. He said there are bigger things in life than winning a golf tournament.”
In the mid-90s, Sullivan was still playing competitively and even qualified for the PGA TOUR’s Greater Hartford Open (now the Traveler’s Championship) in 1995. He made the cut as a section pro, a rare achievement even back then. “What I remember so much was playing our last hole, the ninth,” Sullivan recalled. “Jay Williamson, Mark Wurtz, and I all made birdies to make the cut. I rolled in a 10-footer. The guys congratulated me like I had won the Open.”
“When I’m 16 and your coach is in a PGA TOUR event, that’s pretty cool,” Salinetti said.
But even as a competitor, Sullivan never stopped helping others. Marc Levesque, a fellow PGA Pro at Wyantenuck, saw it firsthand when they were paired together for an event. Minutes before they teed off, Levesque couldn’t find Sullivan but then looked over at the putting green and saw him helping another competitor with their putting stroke.
“I sat in my cart and I said to myself ‘nowhere in my life could I imagine doing that minutes before teeing off,” Levesque said during the NENY PGA Induction Ceremony. “But again, it’s Tom Sullivan. It’s what he does.”