- Golfer Benefits
NORTON, Massachusetts – Mass Golf today announced the recipients of the 2023 Player of the Year Awards presented by Delta Air Lines, honoring the top amateur golf performers in Massachusetts.
Top honorees include Ricky Stimets, of Worcester Country Club, who earned the Richard D. Haskell Player of the Year Award for the first time. For the third time in four years, Shannon Johnson, of Thorny Lea Golf Club, has earned the Anne Marie Tobin Women’s Player of the Year Award, giving her five total since 2016.
Since 1976, Mass Golf has recognized more than 70 Players of the Year Award winners for their stellar seasonal performances in Mass Golf Championships and select regional, national, and United States Golf Association (USGA) events. The winners are based on the final tallies of the respective Mass Golf Player of the Year point systems. Mass Golf will recognize eight different awards for the 2023 season.
Delta is the official airline of Mass Golf and the first-ever presenting sponsor for the Player of the Year Awards. Delta is the No. 1 global airline out of Boston, and with its commitment to delivering customers a best-in-class flying experience, each recipient of the Player of the Year Award will receive the opportunity to see the world via the official airline partner of Mass Golf.
RICKY STIMETS (Home Club: Worcester Country Club; Hometown: Osterville)
SHANNON JOHNSON (Home Club: Thorny Lea Golf Club, Brockton; Hometown: North Easton)
MOLLY SMITH (Home Club: Vesper Country Club, Tyngsborough & Mt. Pleasant Golf Club, Lowell; Hometown: Westford)
RYAN DOWNES (Home Club: GreatHorse, Hampden; Hometown: Longmeadow)
PAMELA KUONG (Home Club: Charles River Country Club, Newton; Hometown: Wellesley Hills)
FRANK VANA, JR. (Home Club: Marlborough Country Club, Marlborough; Hometown: Boxford)
KEITH SMITH (Home Club: Franklin Country Club; Hometown: Franklin)
SHANNON JOHNSON (Home Club: Thorny Lea Golf Club, Brockton; Hometown: North Easton)
>>Richard D. Haskell Player of the Year – 853 Points (Standings + Results)
When you’re playing well, you ride that wave, and in 2023, Ricky Stimets rode that tide to his best season since regaining his amateur status in 2019.
Taking on a full schedule of Mass Golf and regional events, Stimets was in the hunt for victory in almost all of them. He finished 2nd in the Mass Four-Ball with Kevin Blaser, T3 in the Norfolk County Classic, low amateur (T5 overall) in the Mass Open, 2nd in the Hornblower Memorial and T6 in the New England Amateur with a hole-in-one.
Determined to break through and win, he did so in style at the Mass Mid-Amateur in September, dominating the field over three days at Willowbend to shoot 8-under 202 and win by a whopping 13 strokes, two shy of the record. The victory was an emotional one for Stimets and his family as it came 30 years after his grandfather Dick Stimets won the same title, also at Willowbend. However, Ricky can now say he’s the first in his family to affix his name to the Player of the Year Award.
“That’s the coolest thing,” Stimets said after his Mid-Amateur victory. “He lapped the field, too, so this is pretty cool. I know my whole family is smiling down on this. To have our names on the same trophy is cool.”
Stimets said the most significant change he made this year was adding an armlock putter to the bag. Between the Norfolk County Classic in late May and the Hornblower in early June, Stimets switched flat sticks and worked extensively with fellow amateur standout Mike Calef on the greens at Presidents Golf Course, where the Norfolk County Classic is held. This adjustment, in part, helped Stimets lap the field during the Mass Mid-Amateur as he collected 13 birdies and three eagles in the 54-hole tournament.
“I felt myself struggling and wasn’t playing well in tournament rounds,” Stimets said. “I switched techniques and just committed to sticking with it all year. I’ve been more successful and consistent with it.”
If 2023 was a breakthrough year, 2024 might see a continued ascension for Stimets. The Mass Open is coming to Willowbend, and the Mass Four-Ball takes place at The Club at New Seabury, both home games for the Cape Cod native.
“I’m just excited for next year,” Stimets said. “The schedule looks pretty good for my game, and hopefully, I can run it back.”
Over the past decade, Shannon Johnson has developed into a force in women’s amateur golf, both in Massachusetts and nationally. Yet, in 2023, she continued finding ways to add an already impressive golf legacy.
Johnson captured one championship victory in 2022 (Mass Women’s Four-Ball with Megan Buck) but earned three this year, including her first-ever win in the Ouimet Memorial Tournament. Along with winning the Four-Ball again and earning her fifth Women’s Mid-Amateur title (both in playoffs), Johnson earned Player of the Year honors for the fifth time.
“It was kind of an interesting year, as my game had good stretches and some not so great,” Johnson said. “It’s all about managing expectations and hoping you can hit key shots when it matters most.”
Johnson said there was a point in the year where she had to put the clubs away for three weeks, frustrated with where her game was. She returned just before the Four-Ball victory in early July and from that point was almost unstoppable.
With a tournament-low, 2-under 69 in the second round of the Ouimet Tournament at Oakley Country Club, Johnson found herself tied for the lead. In the final round, she executed an incredible up-and-down par from a greenside bunker on the 17th to keep a two-stroke lead, giving her enough for a victory that had alluded her for years.
“There’s so many good players now, so you always have to go in with a good game plan,” she said.
On the national stage, Johnson struggled in the opening round of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur but bounced back with an even-par 71 to make match play and defeat Julia Potter-Bobb in a rematch of the 2016 final match.
Johnson is already looking forward to 2024 as the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur comes to Brae Burn Country Club in Newton. She also capped off the season by clinching a spot with Buck into the 2024 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball.
“We’re always working out, and at this point, it’s about making small gains, even if it’s just getting a half percent better,” Johnson said. “The Four-Ball next year is motivation. We’ve been in the gym for the last 1.5 months at Tour Physio, trying to add some distance; that’s where the golf world is heading. If we can do that, it’ll be to our benefit.”
Johnson also took home the Women’s Mid-Amateur Award, presented to the female competitor – age 25 & over – who tallies the lowest combined gross score in the 36-hole stroke play portion of the Mass Women’s Amateur Championship and the Mass Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship for the Keyes Cup. Johnson earned the No. 4 seed in match play at the Women’s Amateur with scores of 77-74 and shot 75-77 to win the Women’s Mid-Amateur.
Molly Smith has always wanted to compete with the best golfers at the best courses. With exemplary driving distance, a strengthened wedge game, and a passion for golf in general, her talent is full on display.
In 2023, Smith took that drive to another level, capping her junior golf days with a historic season that resulted in her earning Girls’ Junior Player of the Year honors for the second time (also 2021) before shipping off to the University of Central Florida on a scholarship.
“As I have gotten older, I feel like consistency has become more important to seeing progress in my golf game,” Smith said. “So winning this award shows that I have been consistent this past year, which is rewarding.”
Smith made headlines by competing against the men in some of the state’s most popular events. First, it was U.S. Open Local Qualifying at LeBaron Hills Country Club, where she got into a playoff for an alternate spot. But the historic breakthrough came a month later when she became the first female to qualify and then play in the Massachusetts Amateur Championship at Essex County Club.
“I feel like playing against the men has helped to take my game to another level,” said Smith, who shot rounds of 74 and 75 at Essex, coming up a few strokes shy of match play. “When I play a longer golf course, I have less room to make mistakes, so my game gets sharpened.”
Smith was right on the cusp of winning several women’s championships this year, finishing runner-up and low junior in the New England Women’s Amateur and Ouimet Memorial Tournament. In the Mass Women’s Amateur at Dedham Country & Polo Club, Smith was the only person to break par, as her 2-under 68 in Round 2 led her to medalist honors. Smith made quick work of most of her opponents in match play but came up short against Rebecca Skoler in an evenly-played final match.
In June, Smith became the 2023 MIAA girls’ golf individual champion and during the season also competed in four high-profile national events — U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball, U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur, U.S. Women’s Amateur, and the PGA Junior Championship — making match play in the Girls’ Junior Amateur.
When not competing, Smith often practiced with family, including older sister Morgan, a first-year at Georgetown, and Maddie, this year’s Mass Girls’ Junior Amateur winner. The sisters always push one another to improve, and when they’re not facing off at an event, they’re all their biggest supporters.
“I just enjoyed playing golf with my friends all summer, and I felt like I was at a point where I was ready to take the next step with my game in college,” Smith said. “I definitely couldn’t be where I am in my golf career without my family, my coaches and teammates, and anyone who supports me.”
>>Christopher Cutler Rich Junior Player of the Year – 960 Points (Standings + Results)
Over the years, Massachusetts has produced several greats who excelled in their formative years of golf. Ryan Downes, however, may have entered a category of his own as the Vanderbilt commit made history in a summer of sweet success.
One year after falling in the final match of the Mass Amateur Championship, he returned with confidence and composure and found a way back into the final. Tied through 21 of the 36-hole final, the then-17-year-old phenom won five of the next seven to defeat his longtime GreatHorse clubmate Matthew Naumec and become the youngest champion in the event’s 115-year history.
Two weeks later, he pulled away in the final round for a repeat victory in the Ouimet Memorial Tournament. He became the fourth person to win the event and the Mass Amateur the same year.
While he was unable to win the Mass Junior Amateur at GreatHorse, coming up short in the semifinal, Downes went on to win his second straight MIAA Division 1 state championship (individual) at his home course and on his 18th birthday.
“I couldn’t be happier with how it went,” said Downes, reflecting on his season. “Other bigger events, I just kept playing great and would follow them up with big rounds, and it ended up being a great year.”
With his world-class short game on display, Downes started the year in April by winning the AJGA Justin Thomas Invitational in Kentucky, but he said he was still searching for something in his swing. As he had often, he turned to his dad, Billy Downes, GreatHorse’s head golf professional, to help get things back on track.
“When we figured out a little swing change I needed to make, it gave me more confidence,” said the younger Downes, who also credited his caddies Kevin Allard and Cole Banning for their help and reassurance throughout the year.
While he has officially inked his name as a DI college commit, Downes still has one more junior golf season to add to his accolades. In addition to a pair of title defenses, he hopes to qualify for the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur. He will likely finish out his junior golf career in fitting fashion by playing in the New England Junior Amateur, hosted by (you guessed it) GreatHorse.
From the Pacific Northwest to the British Isles and all parts in between, Pamela Kuong brought a golf game that was as sharp as ever in 2023.
With her fourth Women’s Senior Player of the Year Award, Kuong remains the only person to earn the accolade, but she said her success is only possible by having a vast support system around her.
“It takes a team, and I’m fortunate I have such a team of pros and friends who are supportive and a great club in Charles River Country Club,” Kuong said.
One of those close supporters is Doug Clapp, who teamed with Kuong to win the Mass Mixed Four-Ball Championship early in the year. Locally, Kuong also finished runner-up in the Mass Women’s Senior Amateur and forced a playoff with Shannon Johnson in the Mass Women’s Mid-Amateur. Playing the latter at Cape Cod National, Kuong said, was excellent preparation for the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, which began the following week.
However, her shining moments came farther from home. With fellow Mass Golfer Temple Mitchell on the bag, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open for the first time, getting to play among the likes of Annika Sorenstam, Pat Hurst, and other greats in history. While she didn’t make the cut in Portland, Oregon, Kuong’s excellent short game stood out, even among the pros.
“They were good and complimentary, and one pro wanted to watch me practice my short game,” Kuong said. “It’s another confidence boost that you have pros saying your game is solid.”
Later in the summer, she opened with a 1-over 73 to make match play in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur in Scottsdale, Arizona, advancing to the Round of 32.
While it didn’t count for POY points, Kuong also shined by finishing 4th (top American) in the 72-hole R&A Senior Women’s Open at Woodhall Spa in rural England. With the help of Clapp, who knew of the course, Kuong played confidently on the windswept and challenging course (Slope 154), shooting between 74 and 77 in each round.
“He would walk me through how to hit certain shots, and there were shots I never hit in my life, and I pulled it off,” Kuong said of Clapp. “It was a comfortable setting. It’s pouring rain, and we’re laughing. Other competitors weren’t having as much fun.”
Kuong also credited lessons with Shawn Hester, as well as the staff at TrainBoston, for help with swing and physical conditioning to get through the entire season. Following major knee surgery at the end of 2021, she said this year was the first time since that she could walk a full round at Charles River, a win in its own right.
>>George M. Cohen Senior Player of the Year – 504 Points (Standings + Results)
No matter how busy life gets for Frank Vana, Jr., he’s proving that there’s plenty of pop left in the Hall of Famer’s swing.
With his sixth Senior Player of the Year Award in 2023, Vana surpassed inaugural winner Ed Fletcher for the most all-time.
Vana pointed to a new prize and a cherished memory as his favorite moments from the 2023 season.
Always a contender in any event he enters, Vana’s shining moment came in late summer when he captured the Senior Hornblower Memorial for the first time, taking home a coveted champion’s jacket in the annual event held at Plymouth Country Club.
“I was thrilled to win the [Senior] Hornblower, and Plymouth is right up there with my favorite courses to play,” said Vana, who has a longtime friendship with tournament chairman Mike Ellis and his father Skeet Ellis, who ran the tournament before him.
Vana also snuck his way into match play in the Mass Amateur at Essex County Club, where he won the title back in 2005. Eighteen years later, he had his son Jake on the bag as he advanced in a playoff and put up a solid fight in the opening round against top-seeded John Broderick, who set the course record of 62 during stroke play.
Individually, Vana also finished runner-up in the Ouimet Memorial Tournament and rallied to another runner-up finish in the Mass Senior Amateur. Vana posted the only under-par tournament round in Round 2 of the Senior Amateur at Hopkinton Country Club with a 2-under 69. He piled up four birdies, including two on the difficult back nine, coming in with a 33.
>>Super Senior Player of the Year – 835 Points (Standings + Results)
For a while, 2023 wasn’t shaping up to be a memorable season for Keith Smith. In his first year as a super senior (age 65+), he struggled with his swing tempo, failed to qualify for USGA events, and wasn’t getting the results he was chasing.
But with just two events remaining in the season, Smith made it a September to remember.
He won the New England Senior Amateur by a commanding four strokes, which he called “the biggest win of his life.” He said the course, Fox Hopyard Golf Club, fit his eye well as he shot under-par rounds of 67 and 68 with 11 birdies total, plus an eagle.
He followed it up by making a 10-foot birdie putt to cap off a thrilling victory in the Mass Super Senior Amateur Championship at LeBaron Hills Country Club.
“I wasn’t expecting this because it hadn’t been a great year,” said Smith, who won Senior POY honors in 2021. “To come around was gratifying because there’s so many good players.”
Working with Shawn Hester, Smith said he was able to snap out of some bad habits, and with enough repetition, all his work on his swing started to show.
“When you try to adjust, sometimes it takes 1,000 or 1,500 swings for it to be normal,” Smith said. “You want to feel comfortable and turn your mind off. Having a good short game is the most important. You can not hit well and still scrape it together.”
Asked what the key to his success has been at this point in life, “I’ve been fortunate to stay healthy, with no injuries, which you can’t always account for,” Smith said. “With some of the Super Senior events, courses aren’t as long, and I’m longer off the tee than most, as long as I can keep the ball in play. If I’m swinging well, I have shorter clubs into greens, which allows me to score well.”
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