This Teacher's Always Been a
Catching up with Bill Wright, the historic winner
of the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship
February 18, 2009
By Pete Kowalski, USGA
Teaching and the game of golf are intrinsically linked.
Regardless of age or skill level, you are a
. And, as golfers will tell you, lessons learned on the
course translate well in life.
|In winning the 1959 U.S. Amateur
Public Links, William Wright became the first
African-American to capture a USGA championship. (USGA
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
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
in 1992. Today, Wright teaches golf four to five days a week
at The Lakes at El Segundo, near the Los Angeles
"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
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
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.
"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."
|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)|
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
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
contemporary report, it was 23. Essig remembered a 20-footer
for birdie Wright made on the 18
after he two-putted for birdie himself.
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."
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,
"Some of you folks bothered him on that shot. It was very
unfair. Please give him a better break so he can play his
Essig and Wright were reunited at the 75
Anniversary of the Publinks in Portland, Ore, in 2000.
Essig's take on that semifinal story: "Bill's always been a
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