The legend of Bill Wright still grows after 50 years
May 16, 2009
SEATTLE, Wash. -
By Jerry Brewer, Seattle Times staff columnist
Bill Wright, a funny, kind and sage man, joked that he'll sic his dog on me if I don't get this column right. Think he said he has a pit bull.
"He's mean, and I probably don't feed him enough, so he's hungry," Wright said. "Do right by me, man. I'll send him all the way from Los Angeles to Seattle to find you. Help me out here."
We shared a laugh, the last of many in a 40-minute phone conversation. Then we hung up, and as his trailblazing golf legacy became clear to me, it was quite moving to think this man, this pioneer, still had the modesty to worry that someone could find fault in his inspiring story.
There's no wrong in Mr. Wright. Fifty years ago, as a 23-year-old with a sweet swing he developed while mimicking Sam Snead, Wright became the first African-American to win a United States Golf Association title. He captured the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championships, amazing the crowd with his magic Spaulding Autograph putter, making an emphatic statement about equality.
But at the time, Wright was simply young and competitive. He didn't focus on the potential for social impact. After he won the event, held at the Wellshire Golf Course near Denver, tournament officials put the Franklin High School graduate on the phone with a Seattle journalist.
"How does it feel to be the first black to win?" the reporter asked.
Wright threw the phone down.
He wasn't angry. He was just so lost in celebration that he hadn't considered the bigger picture. Wright composed himself, the reporter called back, and he gave a thoughtful, gracious interview. Fifty years later, the legend of that accomplishment continues to grow.
Wright returns to the region today to be the keynote speaker at a banquet the Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine. It's a kickoff for the NCAA Division II National Men's Golf Championships, which Wright's alma mater, Western Washington University, is hosting this week.
"Well, I'm proud that I did what I did," Wright says. "I don't know that I can say that I think about it all the time, but I remember that tournament clearly. I remember all the golf courses like that."
Some of his fondest memories came from the Jefferson Park Golf Course in Beacon Hill. That's where, at age 14, his father nudged him toward golf.
Bob Wright loved golf, and he was a good enough player to compete in the 1963 U.S. Amateur Public Links. But his son enjoyed all sports, especially basketball. Bill played AAU basketball with future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor. Bill went on to become an all-state hoops star in 1954 and helped the Quakers win their first state title. But by then, golf was his passion all because of his father's reverse psychology.
"After I played for the first time, he introduced me to the city's junior champion," Bill recalled. "My father said, 'Don't worry, Bill, you can't beat him.' I got all hot under the collar. I said, 'Golf? If I take it up, I'll beat him in a year.' "
The next year, at the Seattle City Amateur, he was on his way to doing so after shooting a 68 in the first round. But tournament officials then ruled him ineligible, and he assumed it was racism. "I guess they didn't want me to win," Bill said.
He refused to be discouraged, however. He became a student of the game. His family befriended Charlie Sifford, who went on to desegregate the PGA Tour. And whenever Snead, Bill's favorite pro golfer, played in the Northwest, he followed him around and studied his swing.
"If he played in Portland, we'd drive to Portland and watch him all day for five or six days," said Bill, who now teaches golf at The Lakes at El Segundo, near the Los Angeles International Airport. "Then he'd come to Seattle, and we'd watch him there. And then we'd watch him in Vancouver. Whatever he did, I copied it."
Several years later, in the late 1960s, Snead saw Bill watching him putt during a tournament in Iowa. Snead was perfecting a new technique, a croquet-like style in which he straddled the ball.
"Do you want to learn?" Snead asked Bill.
After that tournament, Snead played nine holes to teach Bill his putting form, and on the fifth hole, he said, "You remind me of a young fellow who used to follow me in the Northwest."
Bill was shocked his idol remembered and confirmed it was him.
"Why didn't you ever ask for an autograph or something?" Snead wondered.
"That was a different time, a different day and a different place," Bill said.
"I've changed," Snead replied.
"Obviously, you've changed because you would've never asked me to play golf," Bill said.
Then they laughed, two men of different races united by the game of golf and a title that guarantees everlasting respect.
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