July 1, 2009
WASHINGTON, DC -
By Thomas Loverro, The Washington Times
Bill Wright vividly remembers the feeling he had while he was flying to Denver for the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship with a group of other golfers who were competing in the tournament at Wellshire Golf Course.
"Here I am. I can't belong to any club, but I qualified for the tournament," Wright said. "The players didn't really want to even go on the same plane with me."
Wright couldn't belong to any club, because this was 1959 and he was black. The players didn't want to go on the same plane with him because he was black, and in 1959 black players didn't compete with white players, particularly in a major USGA tournament.
By the end of the tournament, a black player had won the U.S. Amateur Public Links for the first time.
Tiger Woods will host the third annual AT&T National at Congressional Country Club this week, 50 years after Bill Wright changed golf history and opened the door for Woods and other minority golfers by becoming the first black player to win a USGA championship.
It was a remarkable accomplishment, not just because of the racism Wright faced to compete but also because he had managed to learn the game as a young man growing up in Seattle.
"Nobody would help any black players then," Wright said. "All the pros were white, and they wouldn't take you on. I got my techniques from my dad [Bob Wright, who would compete in the 1963 Amateur Public Links], who was a good player and worked hard to teach me the game."
Wright, 73, had been a basketball star in his youth, all-city and all-state at Franklin High School in Seattle, and he went on to play at Western Washington University. But golf became his love, and it was a tough love for a black golfer.
He tried to play in the Seattle city amateur championship but wasn't allowed, "because I did not belong to any golf club."
"We couldn't at the time," he said. "We had to form our own golf club. When I got pretty good, my parents started fighting this."
They managed to get the exclusionary rule tossed out, and Wright began competing in tournaments. He also got some lessons from a black golf pioneer, Charlie Sifford.
"The only tournaments a black player could play in then were in St. Paul, Portland, Vancouver and Seattle," Wright said. "When he would come to Seattle, he would stay with us. He was an inspiration to me because I saw how much he practiced. I saw what it would take to play this game."
Wright learned to play well enough to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Public Links in 1959. "Nobody had really played well from the state of Washington before in the tournament," Wright said.
Wright did. In six rounds of matches, Wright birdied the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth holes every time, using just 12 clubs - two woods, nine irons and a putter.
"I was hitting the ball well, and I was always a good putter," Wright said. "My folks had owned a restaurant and pool hall, and when I was very young, I was a very good pool player. Angles have always come easy to me."
But even crowned a winner, Wright was reminded that in the eyes of the golf world, he wasn't one of them.
"Everyone was friendly to me, but after I won, a waitress told me I had a call in the locker room," he said. "It was a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer asking me how did it feel to be the first Negro to win a tournament. I hung the phone up. I didn't think that was what I was trying to do there. I was just thinking I was a player winning the tournament. That call was a blow. I was thinking, 'Is that what I am here for?' I called him back later to talk to him, though."
Wright would go on to become the NAIA college golf champion in 1960. He would go on to own auto dealerships in the Los Angeles area and later compete in five U.S. Senior Opens. He currently teaches golf at The Lakes at El Segundo in Los Angeles.
Last summer, while at The Lakes, he got an unexpected visit.
"Someone told me Freddie Couples [who grew up in Seattle] was looking for me," Wright said. "He found me the next day and told me that he knew who I was and that I was an icon to him. He had played at Jefferson Park like I had and heard the stories about me. He said he saw my picture in the clubhouse there, so he saw me every time he walked into the clubhouse. He joked with me now that his picture was bigger."
Wright once played with a young Jack Nicklaus.
"I went on the national amateur tournament in 1959 [in Colorado Springs] and got a chance to play to play with Nicklaus. Even in that tournament, golfers didn't want to play with me. [Longtime amateur golf legend] Chick Evans was in his 80s at the time, but he came up to me and said he saw what was happening to me. He invited me to play with him and sit at the head table for the banquet with him. We played with two others, [future PGA commissioner] Deane Beman and a young Jack Nicklaus. He had perfect concentration, and he wound up winning that tournament. That was the first time people knew about him."
Wright also met Woods at the 100th anniversary celebration of the USGA.
"He was the national amateur champion then, and we had a picture taken together at the banquet," Wright said. "I knew who he was, but I'm not sure he knew who I was.
He is Mr. Golf now, no doubt about it."
Sam Snead was Mr. Golf during his time and a golfer whom Wright admired.
"I liked his swing, and whenever he would play nearby, my mother would drive me there to watch him," he said. "I followed him around like a puppy dog whenever I could."
Years later, Wright wound up playing with Snead, who said to him, "Bill, you remind me of a kid that used to follow me around in the Northwest."
"I said that was me," Wright said, "and he asked me, 'Why didn't you ever come up to talk to me?' I pointed to my skin and said, 'It was a different time and age, Sam.' "
Yes, it was.