This Teacher's Always Been a Class Act

Catching up with Bill Wright, the historic winner
of the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship


February 18, 2009

By Pete Kowalski, USGA

In winning the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links, William Wright became the first African-American to capture a USGA championship. (USGA Museum)
Teaching and the game of golf are intrinsically linked. Regardless of age or skill level, you are a student . And, as golfers will tell you, lessons learned on the course translate well in life.

Bill Wright has lived his life to that tenet.

At any given time or place, he has been tied to teaching. His mother, Madeline, was a teacher in the Wright family's hometown of Seattle. His wife of 47 years, Ceta, taught for 43 years. Wright himself taught elementary school at 102 nd School in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

Wright's ties to golf began at age 14, when his father Bob took him to Jefferson Park Golf Course in Seattle, Wash. He earned athletic honors in golf and basketball at Western Washington University and briefly ventured out onto the professional tour. While working in auto sales, he qualified for five U.S. Senior Opens, with a best finish of 42 nd in 1992. Today, Wright teaches golf four to five days a week at The Lakes at El Segundo, near the Los Angeles International Airport.

"It was truly my mother and my parents," Wright said of his most vital life influences. "The way she handled herself was always important to me. And the way my father handled himself on the golf course, well. My mother explained to me early on - no cussing, no throwing clubs - and not in a threatening way."

His tenacity with grace emanated from his father, a fine player who competed in the 1963 U.S. Amateur Public Links. The first time Wright went to culturally diverse Jefferson Park with his father, he saw the city's reigning junior champion practicing. Bob Wright said: "Don't worry, Bill, you can't beat him anyway."

The younger Wright vowed to beat the young man in a year, and he did.

While his determination came from his father, his inspiration came from World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Sifford, who was a guest at the Wright household on visits to Seattle and amazed Bill with his practice routine.

"He stayed at the house," Wright said of the pioneering pro golfer. "Every single time he was there, both my Dad and I would watch him. All day long, he would practice his chip shots, his putting, whatever he could do."

Watch and learn, Bill Wright did.

Fifty years ago this summer, the United States Golf Association staged the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Wellshire Golf Course near Denver, Colo. Wright, 23, dazzled the crowd and the field with his Spaulding Autograph putter. In winning the national title for public course players, he became the first African-American to capture a USGA championship.

Two incidents from a half-century ago stand out today for Wright, 72, and still an athletic 6-foot-2, 180 pounds.

First, just after the ceremony where he received his trophy and medal, he was told he had a phone call. It was a sport announcer from Seattle.

William Wright, right, gazes at the APL trophy that has his name etched for others to see at the USGA Museum's Hall of Champions in Far Hills, N.J. (USGA Museum)
"He said: 'How does it feel to be the first black to win the tournament?' And, I just heaved the phone down," Wright recalled. "I wasn't thinking in those terms. I don't know what it was. I knew he was going to call back. I hung up and got myself back together. There were no problems there. That was how I felt inside. I wasn't mad. I wanted to be black. I wanted to be the winner. I wanted to be all those things. It just hit that other people were thinking that [being the first black winner]. I was just playing golf."

The brief flare-up was understandable. Wright had played unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime golf. Wright remembered, in the six rounds of matches, that he birdied the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th holes every time - using just 12 clubs: two woods, nine irons and that Spaulding Autograph putter.

"That is outstanding to me," said Wright, who won the NAIA collegiate individual golf championship in 1960. "I had runs before, but not like that."

Part of this lava-hot putting streak was Wright's semifinal match with 1957 Publinks champion Don Essig. Wright called it his toughest match, saying: "He's was the only guy who was just 2 down to me" after the first nine holes.

Essig, a Louisiana State University golfer known for his putting skill, recalled: "He may have been the only guy, when I was that age, who outputted me in 36 holes of golf. He had a really great day of putting that day. I forget how many one-putt greens he had that day."

According to the Golf World contemporary report, it was 23. Essig remembered a 20-footer for birdie Wright made on the 18 th after he two-putted for birdie himself.

The USGA And Minority Golfers:

Click on the following names for more information:

Ted Rhodes

Althea Gibson

Ann Gregory

Renee Powell

Bill Wright

John Shippen

Wright, who had trouble getting a Handicap Index in Seattle but did thanks to his parents' persistence, had the estimated crowd of 2,000 in his corner in the match against Essig.

"You can tell when people are pulling for you," Wright said. "Everybody, to me, was pulling for me. And, there was only one black spectator that I saw."

Reported Golf Journal report from that August, Wright "appeared at times ill at ease because of his familiarity with championship procedures. Nevertheless, his innate fairness always showed through."

The jump-out-at-you example was on the sixth hole when Essig overshot the green and faced a difficult lie. During his stroke, some in the crowd continued their conversations and Essig's chip attempt did not reach the green.

Immediately, Wright walked to them and said politely, according to Golf Journal: "Some of you folks bothered him on that shot. It was very unfair. Please give him a better break so he can play his regular game."

Essig and Wright were reunited at the 75 th Anniversary of the Publinks in Portland, Ore, in 2000.

Essig's take on that semifinal story: "Bill's always been a perfect gentleman."

Now, half a century later, life lessons become intertwined with memories, but pride of accomplishment remains.

"It means that I was playing well at the time, but it meant that someone else could come along and play in the tournament," Wright said of his historic victory. "It didn't make a difference if they were young or old or anything - they could play, and they'd have a chance to win. I am proud now if you ask me. I have been for many years. I was able to at least give an image to kids like that."

PeteKowalskiis media relations manager for the USGA. He can be reached at pkowalski@usga.com .



  





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