How Bill Connell helped establish TPC Boston and Massachusetts Golf House

By Steve Krause
      It was during a trip to Ireland that the late Bill Connell was asked by his son-in-law “What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do?”

      Connell, the man who once headed the group that owned
Suffolk Downs, and the man who helped broker the deal that kept the New England Patriots from moving to Hartford, Conn., didn’t miss a beat.
    “He said the one thing he’d always wanted to do was build a golf course,” said Tom Healey, whose wife, Monica, is Connell’s daughter.
   Connell grew up in McDonough Square in Lynn, went to St. Mary’s and Boston College, and had been a benefactor to all three during his adult life. The science building at St. Mary’s is named for him, and the nursing school at BC bears his name as well.
    Connell also sat on Bank of Boston’s board of directors. Next thing anyone knew, BayBank had been acquired by Bank of Boston and, as a result of the merger, there were 700 acres of BayBank land in Norton that awaited development. The bank’s CFO Peter Manning, who, like Connell, has BC connections, was “a big golfer,” according to Healey, and wanted to put a golf course on the land.
    “There used to be a PGA event at Pleasant Valley (in Sutton),” Healey said, “and it was pretty popular. The pros all liked going there. But it was stopped in 1994, and a lot of the pros were looking to get back into New England.”
    So it was a harmonic convergence of sorts. Connell wanted to build a golf course. Manning wanted to convert land into a golf course. And PGA tour professionals wanted to pick up a stop in New England after the discontinuation of the Pleasant Valley event.
     There was one more piece of the puzzle. Regulations stipulated that the bank couldn’t own more than a quarter of the course. The PGA was willing to put up half the money it would take to build it, but that meant 25 percent was still needed. Manning figured he’d go to the people he knew, individually, and the first person he
approached was Connell.
    “This was right after he’d talked about wanting to build one,” Healey said. “He pretty much said ‘yes’ on the spot.
  “Between (Connell) and the bank, they had a majority ownership,” Healey said. “Not a very big one, but it was a majority. Really, Peter Manning was the catalyst for all of this.”
    Thus, ground was broken on the new course, which would be
designed by the late Arnold Palmer, in 1998.
     “This was his dream,” said Healey of his father-in-law. “He really loved the game. He was an avid golfer, but he was like the rest of us,” said Healey.
   “Sometimes, he struggled. He was average. But he loved the game.” His kids laughed when recalling his favorite golf shot, which he named “Rick O’Shea.”
      Sadly, Connell did not live long enough to see the dream realized. He was diagnosed with melanoma in the spring of 2001, and died that August. Shortly after his death, the TPC private course in Norton was opened.
    Connell’s death also kept him from serving on the board of the PGA, on a policy subcommittee. He was named to the board, but died before the first meeting took place.
    TPC is short for Tournament Players Club, and courses with a TPC designation are owned by the PGA (which has a 49 percent stake in the Norton course). The PGA wanted to include Norton in a series of TPC tournaments that help determine the FedEx Cup champion, and that became a reality in 2007.
     “Now,” says Healey, “all the big names on the tour play in the Norton tournament.”
    There are four such TPC tournaments, of which Norton is No. 2 (the others are the Northern Open in New York, the BMW Championship in Lake Forest, Ill., and the overall championship in Atlanta). According to the format, winners who have survived previous tournaments get to play in the next one. By the time golfers get to Atlanta, there are only 60 players left.
      After the Norton course opened, the PGA needed a sponsor and none were forthcoming. Finally, Deutsche Bank, headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany, agreed to sponsor the event, and it became known as the Deutsche Bank Classic. Run Labor Day weekend, it is the only professional golf tournament that runs from Friday through Monday rather than the traditional Thursday-Sunday format, Healey said.
     Last year, the PGA’s contract with Deutsche Bank expired, and Dell Technologies took over sponsorship. Henceforth, it’ll be called the Dell Technologies Championship. Justin Thomas won the tournament and will defend his title this Aug. 31 to Sept. 3.
   The PGA did not need all 700 acres for the course. It was decided by Manning, Connell and others, that some of that land would be used to house the various organizations of the
Massachusetts golf system.
     “You had the (Massachusetts Golf Association), the (Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts), the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Foundation, and they weren’t all in the same place,” said Healey, “so the Massachusetts Golf House and Museum was built to house them all in one place.”
     What started as the golf house ended up as a museum as well.
      “That was another thing (Connell) decided we should do … have a museum,” Healey said. “Everything kind of moved forward, and it was being developed when he got sick in 2001.
     “He had pulled in some of his friends to help raise funds.”
      Former Blue Cross and Blue Shield CEO William Van Faasen, a Connell friend, helped spearhead the fundraising efforts. A golfer himself, Van Faasen wanted to name the golf house/museum after Connell. And even though Connell died before the building was completed, and the dedication made, he was told of the honor shortly before he passed away.
      Though Connell died 16 years ago, the family is still involved in the Norton course and Golf House, Healey said.
      “We care about it very deeply,” he said.
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