Some future golf stars have all the right moves. Aided by coaches, advisors and parents, they win tournaments and earn golf scholarships to prestigious schools. Then they hit the PGA Tour where, showered with corporate logos and automatic bank deposits, they lead enviable lives.
It’s one way to have a career in the game.
Then there’s Don Wright’s way, which may be grittier than most, but in the end could well be more benevolent.
Wright won’t reveal his age, but his trim physique and boyish smile make thirtyish a good guess. Born in Georgia, Wright, his mother and brother moved to Binghamton, N.Y., when he was a child. His mother, Olla Wright, headed a single-parent household. She put herself through college, earned an accounting degree, took a position with a large chemical firm and later worked for IBM.
Young Don was a good athlete. “I was forced to be,” Wright said. “I grew up with kids who were all great athletes and when I was 7 or 8, they needed me to complete their basketball or baseball teams.”
When Wright was 11, his mother pushed him into golf.
“I told her, no way was I going to chase a little white ball around a cow pasture,” Wright laughed. “But she insisted. So I started playing and I fell in love.”
In seventh grade, Wright could run a 4.3 40-yard dash. He eventually won track and golf scholarships to Texas Southern University, a predominantly black school near Houston. His college golf career was gratifying. He won three collegiate events and was a two-time All-American from the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Breaking into the big-time amateur ranks was tougher. When he went through U.S. Amateur sectional qualifying near Atlanta, Wright fired an opening round of 70, but wilted in the afternoon’s second round.
“I had just moved to Douglaston and didn’t know anybody, so I didn’t have a caddie,” Wright explained. “I carried my own bag and in the afternoon I just ran out of steam. I shot 78 or 79 and missed the cut.”
Wright turned pro in 1996. He played on various mini-tours with some success. On the Invitational Golf Tour of America, he’s the leading lifetime money-winner with more than $109,000. Travel is expensive but Wright has found other sources. If he looks familiar, it’s because he has played in televised events, such as the Big Stakes tournament, where Wright and his partner Dave Schreyer advanced to the third round. Wright’s appearance in the “Million-Dollar Shootout,” a reality golf show, aired all over the world.
Wright has captured 21 pro titles and has had close encounters with chances to play the PGA Tour. In 2003, he was earning his way as a caddie when a friend sponsored him in a Nationwide Tour event. A group of supporters told Wright they’d pay his expenses into six events. If he qualified for one, they’d finance him for a year on the Nationwide Tour.
“In the second event, I qualified,” Wright said. “The sponsors were very excited. Then I missed the cut. I never heard from them again.”
But here’s where Wright veers from the standard path. He helps kids learn to play golf and tries to steer them to a better life.
One of those kids is Marcus Pickett of Pompano Beach, Fla. Pickett was at loose ends after high school. He was a good golfer but hadn’t tested well, which seemed to take college out of the equation. Then Pickett met Don Wright.
In 2008, Pickett’s coach, Carl Wilson, told him Wright was a good player and was in the area. Pickett called Wright and they met at Palm Aire C.C. in Pompano Beach. Wright worked with Pickett on the practice tee, played golf with him and arranged for him to play in a tournament. Through Wright’s contacts, Pickett met Keith Davis, who runs a nonprofit organization that benefits youngsters. Davis is now trying to help Pickett find a college.
“Don is a great person,” Pickett said. “He’s a people person and a great role model. Don gave me pointers and helped me tremendously. He gave me lessons and my golf swing is so much better. I don’t really struggle to shoot 74-75.”
Wright works with kids by giving golf clinics and informal lessons. At times his role is more of a psychological one. A couple of years ago he met Amira Alexander, who is now a senior at Rivers Academy in Alpharetta, Ga.
“He’s a good mentor,” Alexander said. “He gives me tips on how to handle situations in golf and preparing for tournaments. It’s helped me a lot. Some of his advice is really, really helpful and I use it when I prepare for big events.”
Before Alexander played in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur, she called Wright.
“He gave me a pep talk,” she said. “He told me to stay focused, don’t rush and stay patient with every shot you have.”
It worked. Alexander shot 148 in stroke-play qualifying and advanced to match play. She won her first match and then lost to seasoned competitor Lizette Salas in the second round.
While growing up in upstate New York, Wright worked at summer camps and introduced as many as 100 youngsters a year to the game of golf. It’s a memory that motivates him today.
“I was amazed to see what this game did for these youngsters,” Wright said. “I hate to see children miss opportunities in life. The streets are very attractive to some African-American males and females. It’s easy, and they see their parents going through struggles, but when they’re introduced to a game like golf, one that teaches etiquette and high moral standards, I think they feel that they can compete in society.”
Wright has a vast network of friends in the game. Some are African-American, some are not. He keeps tabs on a number of young African-American golf prospects throughout the country, encourages them and gives moral support and even money. At West Pines G.C. in Douglasville, Ga., he meets junior golfers anxious to play the game and Wright is always ready to help.
“It’s informal,” he said. “It’s giving back to youth. I see what this game does for people. It can afford you an education. Because of this game I’ve met President Clinton, Michael Jordan and other very influential people. These people open doors. Youngsters watch these people on TV constantly. They look at these images and they say, I’d like to live up to that person. Golf can be a major influence.”
Last September, Wright mailed his entry to the 2010 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. He was hopeful to get a spot in the field but it took some time before his friend Brian Cohen offered to pay the fee. As it turned out, Wright was too late to get into the sectional qualifying tournament, the event that determined who would attempt to qualify for “the show.”
Wright sounded discouraged. A little down. But, in the end, he was optimistic and making other plans. He took a teaching job at Palm Aire Country Club. Meanwhile, there are a couple of mini tours for which he can sign up. All in good time.
On Feb. 18, Wright’s career took yet another turn. He finished 17th in the Tour des las Americas Qualifying School at Bonaventure Country Club in Weston, Fla. On the East Course, Wright started with 72-72-72 and capped off the tournament with a final-day 70, two under par.
Like all golfers, he bemoaned the fact that it wasn’t better. “In the final round I was 4 under coming into the 12th, a difficult par-3,” Wright said. “I came up out of a 6-iron, hit it in the bunker. I had an uphill lie, and I left it in the bunker. Double bogey. It’s early in the season and I haven’t worked on my bunker game as hard as I should have. I didn’t allow myself to get too upset.”
Wright’s attitude paid off. Though he also double-bogeyed the 13th hole, he went on to birdie the 16th and 17th holes to finish tied for 17th. He’s exempt into two of the Tour’s events and the first is scheduled in Colombia next month. He is planning to go. He’ll again chase the dream, if he can round up a sponsorship or two.While the game has brought opportunities to Wright’s young friends, the prospects who may advance to the next level, golf, the great equalizer, is now offering Don Wright his own shot at the dream.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at email@example.com.