March 28, 2009
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -
By Bill Fields
Though Seattle in the 1940s and `50s was a far cry from Selma, Ala., all wasn't equal. "None of the pros around would give (lessons to blacks)," says Bill Wright, who as a teen played the city's public courses with his father, Bob, a postman, and mother, Madeline, a teacher. "We pretty much learned on our own."
For Wright, his homework included watching his swing idol, Sam Snead, when the tour came to the Pacific Northwest. Also a basketball standout who was on an AAU team with future hall-of-famer Elgin Baylor; Wright honed his game at Jefferson Park, a Seattle muny.
In 1959, when Wright was 23 and a student at Western Washington University, he qualified for the U.S. Amateur Public Links at Wellshire GC in Denver. Wright carried only 12 clubs, but one of them was the hottest putter on the property. "I averaged about 24 putts a round," says Wright, who blitzed the front nine each day and became the first black golfer to win a USGA national title.
The new APL champ got a cold shoulder from fellow Seattle competitors at the U.S. Amateur held at The Broadmoor later that summer. But Chick Evans, the 1916 U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open champion, broke the ice by asking Wright to join him, Jack Nicklaus and Deane Beman for practice rounds and insisting Wright use the locker room and sit at the head table during a player dinner.
Wright taught school for a couple of years then turned pro and played the tour sporadically in the 1960s. At an event in the Midwest where he was in the field with Snead, the star noticed Wright studying him on the practice green and asked him to play nine holes. "You sure remind me of a young kid who used to follow me around when I was in the Northwest," Snead told him.
After leaving the tour Wright operated several auto dealerships in Southern California. Now 72, he lives with his wife, Ceta, in Los Angeles. He still loves to play the game and gives lessons at The Lakes at El Segundo GC. "I stay in good shape," he says. "I don't want to grow old."