In the game of life, as well as in the game of golf, Bob Willits played at a high level and earned many accolades. Long after his passing, a number of the folks he touched still speak of him with a smile and, not surprisingly, with awe and reverence. Simply put, Bob Willits had a lasting impact on the game he loved-and an even more profound effect on the people who played it with him.
The Board of the Missouri Golf Association recently named Willits (1918-2001) to its Hall of Fame. He will be formally inducted at a dinner on June 17th preceding the State Amateur. Willits joins a host of Missouri golf notables already in the Hall- including Tom Watson.
We talked with Watson at the recent Senior PGA. “Bob was my dad’s best friend, so I got to know him well from a young age and played a lot of golf with him,” says Watson, a protégé of the Kansas City businessman. “Bob always had a wonderful manner in everything he did. He taught me an awful lot about the game of golf.”
Willits was Watson’s godfather and frequently played golf with Tom’s father, Ray. Tom took up the game at age 6, and took to it in no time, it seems. He won the prestigious Kansas City Match Play Championship at age 14 and won the Missouri State Amateur four times in his five attempts. His dad and his mentor couldn’t have been prouder.
After Watson completed his amateur career at Stanford University, Willits and others formed a small syndicate to back Watson when he turned pro. Willits said the syndicate finished in the black even before Watson’s first victory, the 1974 Western Open, by which time Watson had decided to go it on his own.
“I still remember those Saturday afternoon games with my dad and Bob,” Tom recalls. Not only caddying for them when I was around 11 or 12 but later when I was invited to play in those games. That was special, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
By all accounts, Willits enjoyed all aspects of the sport he promoted so well for so long. His accomplishments are many and well worth noting: Missouri Amateur Champion in 1947, U.S. Amateur Semifinalist in 1946, Western Am Semifinalist (1947), Masters 1947 (76-78-75-75), U.S. Open (St. Louis CC) in 1947 (75-76-79-79), U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying (1947), U.S. Amateur Qualifying 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1956, U.S. Senior Am Qualifying 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1982, 1984. He served on the USGA Executive Committee, the Trans-Miss Golf Association Committee and the Western Golf Association Committee.
But Willits’ contributions to golf extended well beyond any listing of his accomplishments. Just ask Stan Thirsk, a former teaching pro at the Kansas City Country Club, and one of Tom Watson’s primary instructors.
“Year after year, I was amazed at all the people Bob knew- and not one of them ever had a bad thing to say about him, “ Thirsk recalled. “Everybody loved him. … It always a joy to be around him and I will never forget him, ever.”
Friend Bill Gilbert gives one reason why Willits made such a positive impression wherever he went. “Bob had the ability to transcend all ages, he knew people all over the U.S. and he had friends everywhere he went. We played a lot of golf together,” Gilbert remembers. “There were some golfers as good as Bob but he could have an enjoyable time playing with a hacker.” For Bill, it made no difference to Willits. “He never cared how high my handicap was because he was always enjoying himself.”
Perhaps Eddie Merrins, another longtime friend and pro at Bel Air Country Club for many years, sums up the basic reason Willits was worthy of MGA induction.
“He was the epitome of what amateur golf is all about. He played the game strictly for the reward of the company and the competition. He’s given all he possibly could to the game of golf and golf is a better place for having known Bob Willits.”
Check out our video with Bob here.