The Wright stuff
May 12, 2009
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
Bill Wright, one of the first seven inductees into the Western Washington University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1968, will be the keynote speaker at a banquet on Monday, May 18, at the Semiahmoo Resort to tip off the NCAA Division II National Men's Golf Championships which the Vikings will host at the Loomis Trail Golf Club on May 19-22. It was 50 years ago that Wright won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, becoming the first African American to capture a United States Golf Association-sponsored national title. USGA President Jim Vernon will be present at the banquet to present a scroll to Wright to commemorate that achievement.
by Josh Stilts, WWU Sports Information Office
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 said. "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."
Western Washington Vikings Sidebar Links
|Email this article||Printer-friendly format|