BELLINGHAM, Wash. - On May 19-22, 2009, Western Washington University played host to a national sporting event for the first and only time in school history when the 47th annual NCAA Division II Men's Golf Championships took place at the Loomis Trail Golf Club and Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, Wash.
Playing the key role in that event coming to fruition was Steve Card, who is completing his third year as WWU Director of Athletics. At that time, Card was the head men's golf coach, a post he held from 1993 to 2013, and Associate Director of Athletics for Business and Financial Affairs.
"I had been to a number of national tournaments (with our teams) and each time I felt that we could do it better," recalled Card, who has been at WWU for 26 years. "Over the years when we were host to regional championships in basketball, golf and cross country, I'd seen the quality and caliber of event we put on. It became more and more apparent to me that we could not only host a national championship, but have it be one of the best there had been."
Working with Brett Eaton, PGA Director of Golf at Semiahmoo Golf & Country Club and Loomis Trail Golf Club, Card submitted a national bid in the fall of 2006. It included a budget, weather data, course information, basically everything that could be expected should the tournament be played there.
"We thought with the setting at Loomis Trail and the Semiahmoo Resort hotel, you couldn't have a better situation," Card said.
Loomis Trail measured 7,137 yards in length. It had already been the site of the 1996 Pacific Northwest Golf Amateur as well as a qualifying site for the 2003 United States Golf Association Senior Open and the 2006 United States Amateur qualifier.
Besides an incredible course and facilities, Card felt another factor working in Western's favor was the championship not being held in the west since 2003 at Sunriver, Ore. He knew the NCAA wanted to return to that corridor.
On Sept. 6, 2007, the day of WWU's annual Viking Night fundraiser, Card got a call from NCAA Associate Director Donnie Wagner. Western had been awarded the tournament.
"I was thrilled and honored," Card said of his initial reaction. "And then it was, `We got this, now what are we going to do to make it special.' Here we were going to do something that we'd never done before with all the eyes of NCAA II on us."
Then the work really began as over the next 18 months 160 volunteers were recruited to help run the tournament, 200 rooms were reserved, live scoring was worked out, leader boards constructed and the list went on and on.
"The people at Loomis Trail and Semiahmoo, especially Brett (Eaton), were unbelievable," Card said. "The tournament is about the student-athletes, you want to give them the best possible national tournament experience. That was the plan and the goal from the start, and I believe that we succeeded."
The event began with an emotional award presentation at the opening banquet on May 18 at the Semiahmoo Resort.
Former Western golfer Bill Wright, one of the first seven inductees into the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1968, was the keynote speaker and received a scroll from Jim Vernon, President of the United States Golf Association. Vernon had flown out to recognize the 50th anniversary of Wright winning the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship held at the Wellshire Golf Course near Denver, Colorado, becoming the first African American to capture a USGA-sponsored national title.
Twenty teams and eight individuals from non-qualifying teams, a total of 108 players, took part in the four-day, 72-hole event. The championship itself proved to be incredibly competitive.
Both the team and individual titles took an extra hole to determine and both playoffs emerged out of dramatic finishes by the final group on the final hole.
Sonoma State CA and Cal State San Bernardino each finished with a four-round total of 43-over 1,179. Sonoma State claimed its first national title by getting four pars and a bogey in the sudden-death playoff on the 18th hole.
Gavin Smith (from Stirling, Scotland) of Indiana PA took medalist honors over Kelbi Lee of Ferris State MI. On the first playoff hole, he drained an 18-foot birdie putt just after Lee had a birdie putt from nearly the same distance lip out.
Smith's victory was even more surprising because he had left his pitching wedge back in Pennsylvania. He ended up borrowing one from Card, who got it out of his trunk at the request of IUP coach Fred Joseph.
"Five birdies in four days with that club," said Smith. "Every time I touched it I got a birdie."
On the playoff hole, Smith hit his drive down the middle of the fairway, used the borrowed wedge to hit an approach shot inside 20 feet of the flag, and the rest was history.
Matt Ewald of Washburn KS had a hole-in-one, using a driver to get an albatross on the par-4, 326-yard 13th hole during the opening round. It was Ewald's first hole-in-one, and also the first hole-in-one on the 13th hole since Loomis Trial had opened in 1992. A plaque commemorating the shot was mounted there following the tournament.
While WWU did not qualify for the event as a team, one of its players, Jake Koppenberg, did. A first-team Golf Coaches Association of America All-American, he tied for 12th, finishing with birdies on three of his last four holes.
"It was an amazing week," said Card in describing the national experience. "It's regarded as one of the best national championships ever conducted in our division."
"The memory of the USGA President being there to honor the first African American to win a USGA sponsored national event is one that will never be forgotten. And all the small touches that together made such a huge difference in the tournament. I don't think we missed one."
Men's golf trophy case filled to capacity
No sport in WWU history has collected more trophies and plaques than men's golf. Since the program began in 1931, the Vikings have won 51 titles in conference, district and regional competition over 80 seasons. And they are currently working on a string of 18 NCAA II post-season appearances, the only sport to do so every year since Western joined that affiliation.
In 2013, Western enjoyed the best campaign in program history, reaching the national semifinals. The Vikings tied for third place in match play after tying for seventh in medal play among 20 teams.
The most talented player. Look no further than Bill Wright, who beat out 2,434 competitors to win the Public Links title in 1959, then took NAIA national medalist honors in 1960.
That earned Wright first-team All-America honors. Also earning that distinction for the Vikings have been Tim Feenstra, Jake Koppenberg, Paul Rudis, J.D. Rushton, Joel Skarbo, Jake Webb and Craig Welty.
The legendary Sam Carver coached the sport for the first 22 years, winning 10 straight league titles from 1934 to 1946, a stretch that had a three-year break because of World War II, and 12 overall.
Jim Lounsberry, who served three different stints as coach from 1961 to 1982 for an 18-year total, won 12 championships.
But of the 10 men who have served as head coaches, no one came close to the Vikings' achievements under Steve Card who directed the program from 1993 to 2013.
Card, who served as National Chair for NCAA II Men's Golf in 2011-12, led Western to 12 national appearances, including a school-record six straight from 1995 to 2000. He coached 27 All-Americans and was named league Coach of the Year 10 times and NCAA II West Coach of the Year four times, as well as being WWU's men's golf Coach of the Century for 1900 to 1999. He served a four-year term as a member of the NCAA II Men's Golf Committee and eight years as the DII at-large representative on the Golf Coaches of America Association National Advisory Board.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
The Wright stuff
50 years after WWU's most memorable golf win
Written by Josh Stilts, WWU Sports Information Office Intern
Released on May 12, 2009
More than 58 years ago, Bill Wright first went with his father, Bob, to play a round of golf at the Jefferson Park Golf Course in Seattle. The day would begin a journey together marked by solid drives, daring iron shots and sinking impossible putts.
Whenever Bill and his father would play in tournaments in and around Seattle, they would invariably be paired up against one another in the first round, no matter either's handicap, because both were African-Americans.
"When I played (in tournaments) in the county, my dad and I were always matched up," Wright said. "Our job was to see (which one of us) was playing best. There was no jealousy between us, but I never beat him either."
From an early age, golf has been a part of Wright's life. Charlie Sifford, the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, was often a guest in the Wright household during trips to Seattle. Both Wrights would watch Sifford during his practice routine.
"(Sifford) would come over and practice all day long," Wright said. "Chipping, putting, anything to improve his game and I took notes."
Those notes paid off.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Wright winning a national title. In 1959, the then 23-year-old Wright won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship held at the Wellshire Golf Course near Denver, Colorado. He was the first African-American to capture a USGA-sponsored championship.
"Every front nine I played (there) I birdied every hole except for the second and third," Wright said. "Don Essig was the only one to keep up with me."
Essig, the 1957 Public Links champion and Louisiana State University golfer, almost never got to play against Wright.
"At the time southern schools wouldn't play against non-white players," Wright said. "Essig called the school so he could play."
Both Essig and Wright were known for their putting and according to a Golf World report, Wright had 23 one-putt greens in the 36 holes they played.
After Wright won the Public Links championship, his father, at age 60, made it to the quarterfinals of that same tournament a couple years later.
Wright said his father took a committed interest into his development as a golfer and their relationship directly affected how Wright became the man he is.
"My dad was the same person whether he was 10 under (par) or 10 over," Wright said. "I've tried to imitate his even-keel personality as much as possible."
Wright credits much of his success to the time he played at Western Washington University where in 1960 he took medalist honors at the NAIA National Tournament.
During his time at WWU, Wright developed a great bond with then-Dean of Men C.W. "Bill" McDonald.
Prior to Western, Wright had attended University of Washington for a few semesters. But when he found out that he wouldn't be able to play basketball or golf for the Huskies, he transferred to Western.
"I went to Western because of Dean McDonald," Wright said. "I wanted to go to the UW, but the basketball coach there at the time didn't want to have the first black player."
To get funding to participate at the NAIA nationals, Wright had to go before the student legislature. Leo Dodd was one of the members.
Dodd said, "Bill if you go (to the tournament), how do you think you'll do?"
"I think I'll win," Wright replied. "I wouldn't go otherwise. It's not a vacation."
Par on the course was 71 and Wright shot 70 every round. Going into the final day, Wright said he was 3-under and ahead of the rest of the competition but he wasn't going to just sit on the lead.
"I got nervous on the last day," Wright said. "The group behind me was all tied for second place and it wouldn't have taken much more than for me to miss a few shots or for one of them to go on a birdie run."
Wright was victorious, but he didn't have time to celebrate. A test was waiting for him back at Western, so he hopped on the next flight and got back just in time to take his exam.
Golf wasn't the only sport Wright excelled at. During the 1958-59 Western basketball season, Wright averaged 12.5 points per game which was seventh-best in the Evergreen Conference. Named second-team all-league, the 6-foot-2 Wright was scouted by one of the greatest basketball franchises in NBA history.
"The L.A. Lakers were looking for young talent and I had a chance with them," Wright said. "But guards were getting bigger and stronger. I would have had to go up against a guy like 6-5 Oscar Robertson. No way I could guard him."
Before the NBA game became one of strength and showmanship, basketball was played with finesse, Wright said.
"My coaches didn't like that I dunked," Wright said. "They thought I was showing off."
Wright wasn't much of a showboat, but his teammates on the golf course had an interesting nickname for him, one that carried over to his days on the PGA tour.
"I used to move my feet when I was about to hit, so my teammates called me `The Dancer," Wright said.
During his first year on the tour Wright was invited by Chick Evans, the 1916 U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open champion, to join Evans, Deane Beman, later the Commissioner of the PGA tour, and an 18-year-old named Jack Nicklaus to play some practice rounds.
"[Nicklaus] wasn't a flag hunter like I was," Wright said, admitting to aggressive play that sometimes left him needing to make long putts. "Nicklaus would always play it safe."
For almost 25 years Wright has taught golf at The Lakes at El Segundo near Los Angeles International Airport.
Before joining the PGA tour, Wright spent four years in the National Guard. While on assignment traveling through Chicago, he met the love of his life, Ceta.
"I only saw her three times and I just knew," Wright said.
Forty-seven years later he and Ceta still show each other love even through golf.
Before Ceta ever played a round of golf, Wright gave her six professional lessons.
"Not husband and wife lessons, but professional lessons," Wright said.
When she played her first round, Wright did not go along. Afterwards, he asked how it had gone.
On the fifth hole, something happened that to this day Wright has only done once himself.
"She told me some college-aged boys where on the green and had waved for her to go ahead and hit," Wright said. "She couldn't decide which club to hit, so she just grabbed a five iron, took her swing and after one bounce, in the cup it went."
Bill Wright loves this game
... but he had to fight to play it
Story by Mary Lane Gallagher
No one could beat Bill Wright ('60)and his putter the day he won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Wellshire Golf Course in Denver 50 years ago.
After squeaking into the match-play portion of the tournament as the 63rd out of 64 qualifying players from public courses around the country, Wright began a putting streak that would send him into the history books.
In 1959, no African-American golfer had ever won a United States Golf Association Championship title. But the growing crowd of spectators watching Wright birdie seven out of the first nine holes, round after round, sensed that this 23-year-old education major from Western was about to change that.
At one point, the noise from the crowd bothered Wright. He walked to the gallery after his semi-final opponent, a senior from Louisiana State University, was distracted during a critical shot.
"Some of you folks bothered him on that shot," Wright said, according to a USGA report at the time. "It was very unfair. Please give him a better break so he can play his regular game."
The son of two golf fanatics, Wright had been raised in Seattle to love the game in spite of the stubborn racism that remained in the sport's culture.
But Wright wasn't thinking about breaking down barriers when he sank that last birdie putt on the final 18th hole, defeating a former professional golfer from Florida to win the USGA championship for public golf course players. He was simply amazed at his own accomplishment and celebrated with a Singapore Sling delivered to him right there on the green by a clubhouse waitress who knew his favorite drink.
"I wasn't thinking about anything, but I just got through winning," he remembers.
Which may explain his reaction to a phone call from a reporter back home in Seattle. How did it feel, the reporter wanted to know, to be the first black man to win a USGA title? "I slammed the phone down."
It was a momentary anger. Wright was the day's best golfer, but the first thing he was asked to talk about was not his skill, but the color of his skin.
But he soon composed himself. When the reporter called back, he was ready for the conversation.
"As time went on, I realized it was bigger and bigger," Wright says of the significance of his victory 50 years ago. "I knew how big it was."
Growing up in Seattle, Wright had been raised on golf. His parents were good friends with Charlie Sifford, the first African-American PGA golfer, who stayed at the Wrights' home while traveling.
The Wrights played at Jefferson Park near their home and at other public courses around Seattle.
"It doesn't rain on the golf course," Bob Wright used to joke with his son. "You have to play in the rain around here."
Bob Wright, an accomplished golfer in his own right, made it to the Public Links championship four years after his son won it. But he struggled for years to become a member of one of the segregated, private golf clubs associated with Seattle's public courses; golfers needed to belong to such a club to establish a handicap needed to enter tournaments.
So Bob Wright knew the power of "you can't" when he took his son to watch a champion junior golfer at Jefferson Park one day.
"My dad said, `Don't worry about it, you can't beat him anyway,'" Wright remembers.
"I said, `Just for that, within a year, I'm going to beat him.'"
Less than a year later, the younger Wright entered the city's junior championship tournament, shooting a 68. The next day, tournament officials sent him home, saying he couldn't continue because he didn't have a handicap.
"So I was pushed out of that," Wright says. "But still told my dad, `I beat him.'"
But it was basketball that brought Bill Wright to Western. He had led his Franklin High School team to the state championships and caught the attention of Western basketball coach Bill McDonald, who recruited Wright to come to Bellingham.
The teenage Wright had actually dreamed of playing for the University of Washington, but the basketball coach there, Tippy Dye, wasn't interested in putting the first black player on his team, Wright remembers. So he came up to Western to play under coach Jack Hubbard and became a standout on the WWU team. He caught the attention of a sports reporter at the Bellingham Herald, who often wrote about Wright's basketball talent.
"And at the end (of the story) he would put, `Wait until spring," for golf season, Wright says. Bill Wright made it to the USGA's Public Links championship in 1959, during his senior year at Western. Seattle's golf clubs were still segregated, so the future champion had to join a golf club in Portland, Ore., to establish a handicap to get into the tournament.
It's hard for anyone born less than 40 years ago to understand the level of racism in sports during that era. Many colleges refused to field their athletes if there were any black players on the opposing team. Even Don Essig, the player from Louisiana State on whose behalf Wright asked the crowd to quiet down, had to call his university's officials for permission to play against Wright. It wasn't personal, Wright says, just something Essig had to do.
"That part of golf really doesn't exist that much anymore," Wright says 50 years later.
He's standing at a podium at Semiahmoo Resort, speaking to a banquet room packed with top collegiate golfers the night before the NCAA Division II national tournament, hosted by WWU in spring 2009.
Invited as a special guest, Wright had just received an official proclamation from USGA President Jim Vernon, recognizing his accomplishments.
Wright doesn't like to dwell on the roadblocks he experienced because of racism in the past. Most people know the history, he says, or they don't want to. But there's one story he does make sure to tell the nation's best Division II men's golfers on the eve of the national championship.
Winning the PubLinks title in 1959 earned Wright an automatic spot in that year's U.S. Amateur championships. But his fellow PubLinks qualifiers didn't want to travel or play with him he says. Wright was practicing on the putting green alone when golfing legend Chick Evans walked up. Evans, the first player to win the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open the same year, was known not only for his skill on the fairway, but his sense of sportsmanship.
Evans told Wright he was looking for a player to round out a foursome.
"I understand why you're not playing," Evans told Wright. "Don't say anything more. I want you to go into the clubhouse and sit next to me."
So Wright joined Evans to play with a young up-and-comer named Jack Nicklaus, who won the U.S. Amateur that year, and Deane Beman, who won it the following year. Afterward, Wright sat next to Evans - at the head table.
"He had to be close to 80 years old," Wright remembers of Evans. "He understood the problem."
A year after winning the PubLinks championship, Wright brought home WWU's first national title in any sport when he won the NAIA men's golf championship, also the first African-American to do so.
After graduation, Wright and his wife, Ceta, moved to Los Angeles, where he taught for nine years before becoming a successful businessman as the owner of Pasadena Lincoln Mercury. He also went on the PGA tour, appearing in the U.S. Open in 1966 and six Senior U.S. Opens in the `80s and `90s. He returned to WWU several times over the years, often to play in an alumni tournament named in his honor. And in 2000, he was named one of WWU's "Alumni of the Century."
Now 73 and a golf instructor at The Lakes at El Segundo near the Los Angeles International Airport, he still gets up at 5 o'clock each morning and hits 300 balls three times a day, he says. "Anytime a youngster tries me, I'm ready to play," he says.
Today, many of Wright's golf students are kids, hoping to get on the golf team. He'll often teach them for free. Though Tiger Woods has certainly smashed through most of the remaining racial barriers in golf, it's still difficult for anyone but the very wealthy to become accomplished in a sport that can cost $50 in green fees each time you play.
But it's a game he still loves.
"When you play golf, it makes you concentrate," he says.
"You're not hitting anybody, you're not hurting anybody. You're not talking to anybody, except maybe to God.
"You learn etiquette," he says. "You learn to be honest."
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