Wright's legend still grows
May 18, 2009
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
JOE SUNNEN - THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
Bill Wright is still a little surprised when the phone rings at his home in Los Angeles and the person calling wants to talk about something that happened 50 years ago.
What Wright, 73, wants people to remember about the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship that he won in 1959 is that he never set out to make history by becoming the first African-American to win a United States Golf Association-sponsored national title.
Instead, the Western Washington University alum just wanted to play well and make the cut to match play after traveling from Seattle to Denver to play in the event. He certainly never thought winning that tournament at the age of 23 would be something he would talk about for the rest of his life.
"I didn't think like that at all," Wright said in a phone interview of his historic achievement. "I wanted to do well, but I didn't think of it in those terms. It surprises me now when people want to talk about it 50 years later. People are still writing about me in newspapers, and books, and magazines."
On Monday, May 18, Wright will add another chapter to what has become a long and storied life in golf. He'll be the keynote speaker at a banquet at Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine marking the beginning of the 47th annual NCAA Division II National Men's Golf Championship. USGA President Jim Vernon will also be at the banquet to present Wright with a scroll commemorating his achievement at Wellshire Golf Course during the summer of 1959.
The four-day tournament, hosted by WWU, tees off on Tuesday, May 19 at the Loomis Trail Golf Club at 7:30 a.m. and features some of the best college golfers in the nation.
"I'll be talking about some of my experiences in golf and in life," Wright said. "I'll be there for the tournament. I'm looking forward to watching these young golfers."
Wright's life is certainly filled with interesting and poignant stories to draw from. Born in Kansas City, Mo., but raised in Seattle, he learned to play golf by playing round after round with his father, Bob, and studying professionals like Sam Snead, Ed "Porky" Oliver and Charlie Sifford.
"When Sam Snead came to the Northwest for tournaments my mom would take me down to Portland to watch," Wright said. "Then we would follow him to Seattle and Vancouver. I would follow him everywhere at those tournaments. If he went in the clubhouse I would sit and wait for him to come out. If he was practicing on the putting green I would sit and watch. On the course he had that smooth swing and I would do anything I could just to learn how he did things."
While Snead's swing was the one he wanted to imitate, it was Sifford who was perhaps Wright's greatest inspiration. The pioneering African-American professional golfer was a family friend who would often stay at the Wrights home when he came through Seattle. Along with his father, it was Sifford who shaped Wright's passion for golf. Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
"He and my dad were my inspiration," Wright said. "When Charlie would stay with us he would practice for hours. He worked on chipping all day long. Then the next day he would work on his wedge shots all day long. I found out from him what it takes to play."
Growing up in the 1940s and 50s Wright also had to endure the racial prejudices and bigotry that permeated those times. Though he said the Seattle area was more tolerant than many places, there were still issues.
Often times he and his father had trouble entering golf tournaments because they didn't have an official Handicap Index in Seattle, but they couldn't get that number because they weren't allowed on certain courses. When they did compete in tournaments the two were invariable matched against each other in the first round because of the color of their skin.
"My dad was not your average player," Wright said. "He was a heck of a player and he had a better attitude than me on the golf course. When we played tournaments they would always match us up and I never beat him."
An encounter with Snead several years after Wright won that amateur title in 1959 speaks to some of those prejudices that he faced while growing up. The two met on a course in Iowa and after talking about putting Snead asked Wright to play nine holes with him.
After a time Snead recognized him as the youngster who followed him around the course when he toured in the Northwest. Snead asked him why he never asked for an autograph. Wright looked at him and made a motion with his hands as if he was brushing off a fly. He said Snead understood immediately.
"He told me he had changed and those were different times," Wright said. "I knew when he asked me to play with him that he had."
These days Wright still teaches golf several days a week at The Lakes at El Segundo near the Los Angeles Airport. He plays a round of golf every week or two and stays in good shape. He's played professionally as a PGA member, been involved in car dealerships, and qualified for the U.S. Senior Open five times among other things.
He looks back on his public links championship fondly.
Wright was one of 2,435 entries in the tournament that year and narrowly advanced to match play after shooting a 149 after two days of stroke play. As the 62nd player to advance in a field of 64 he was hardly a favorite to win. Then his first round opponent, Mat Palacio, Jr., gave him some advice and everything fell into place.
"He told me to slow down on my backswing," Wright said. "After that I really started playing well."
So well in fact that Palacio stayed around to watch Wright win his semifinal match by one-putting on 23 of the 36 holes. Then Wright went on to beat Frank H. Campbell 3 and 2 in the 36-hole championship.
"As a golfer when you're playing well you know you're playing well," Wright said. "Then you just leave it alone. I knew I was playing well in those matches."
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