Thirty-four large boxes were stacked in Mickey Wright’s dining room, in her living room and in her small office. Thirty-four boxes and a driving range mat. It seemed to her as if her whole life was encased in those boxes.
On Friday, Nov. 4, a truck hauled away the boxes and headed for the United States Golf Association Museum in Far Hills, N.J. Wright stood in her doorway and watched them go. Tired, but ecstatic, she felt blessed that the more than 200 artifacts from her distinguished career were being shipped to the Museum.
The collection will be displayed in a newly created Mickey Wright Room, which is scheduled to open in June 2012. It will be the first gallery dedicated to a woman in the USGA Museum, America’s first major sports museum, which serves as the world’s premier institution for the preservation and education of U.S. golf history.
“I don’t feel as if I’m losing anything at all,” said Wright. “I’m just grateful the collection will be preserved for others to share what it was like in the early days.”
Wright is extremely proud of those early days of the LPGA Tour, when some 35 players kept their tournament circuit going with a lot of hard work. On that circuit, she became a golfer for the ages, one whose amazing talent is vividly remembered by those who saw her play.
Kathy Whitworth, who herself won a record 88 LPGA events, said, “We could all see she was just so far superior to anyone else. People don’t remember just how good she was.”
“Mickey Wright was one of the premier players in the history of the game and her golf swing was ranked by many as the greatest of all,” said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. “Mickey won four U.S. Women’s Open titles by the age of 30, which strengthened her close ties to the USGA. We’re delighted she has chosen to house the artifacts of her wonderful career in our museum.”
Wright’s collection is vast. In one box was the Bulls-Eye putter her friend Mary Lena Faulk gave to her in 1955. Wright won 81 of her 82 tournaments with that putter. Another box contained the 1963 Wilson Staff woods and irons she used in every tournament, with one exception, that she played in from 1963 through her last senior event in 1995.
On the irons, a small circle in the exact, precise center of the clubface was nearly worn away. Giving up the clubs was wrenching, but when Wright learned of the plan to add a room in her honor to the USGA Museum, she said, “It’s hard, but my clubs belong there.”
Wright never won more than $36,000 in a single year of her career. It was a time, she will remind you, when a good hotel room was $5 a night and a steak dinner cost $2.50. From 1955 through 1964, barreling down the nation’s highways in a big Cadillac, from Sea Island, Ga., to Ardmore, Okla., from Beaumont, Texas, to Eugene, Ore., Wright helped build the fledgling LPGA Tour. The players did the work; banging in the stakes for gallery ropes, marking the water hazards, calling scores in to the newspapers. Wright was at the center of the action. She was LPGA president twice, in 1963 and 1964, and the strain was almost unbearable.
The Tour’s top player by a long shot, she also carried most of the public relations burden, driving to small radio stations in each town for interviews and handling speaking duties at luncheons with Jaycees, Civitans and Kiwanis. She wasn’t just the LPGA’s president, she was its biggest star.
Other great players from that era, Whitworth, Betsy Rawls and the late Patty Berg, who watched the finest players for more than 70 years, maintain that she was the best woman golfer in history. Against fields that included those three, along with Louise Suggs and Sandra Haynie, Wright won 79 times between 1957 and 1968.
In 1963, Wright won 13 tournaments, a record that still stands. Before she turned 30, Wright had already won four U.S. Women’s Opens. She is the only player to have won four LPGA Championships, the only female player to have held four major championship titles at the same time. Twice she shot 62, bettering Berg’s 18-hole scoring record by two strokes.
Fellow four-time U.S. Women’s Open winner Rawls said of Wright, “She set a standard of shot-making that will probably never be equaled.”
Wright no longer plays golf. After she retired she hit practice shots from a driving range mat on her patio, “for the sheer pleasure of swinging a golf club,” she said. The practice shots stopped a little over a year ago. When she underwent knee surgery, her doctor grounded her for more than a month.
“I can’t hit golf balls for six weeks!” she grumbled to Barbara Romack. (Wright first met Romack when they were matched in the final of the 1949 California Girls’ Junior. They frequently chat, exchanging gentle jibes.)
“You can work on your grip,” Romack replied. “I never really liked your grip anyway.”
Few dare to tease the great Wright, but she loves to laugh and can give back as good as she gets.
“Sorry, I couldn’t get to the phone,” Wright once told Romack. “Somebody sent me a Stanford football helmet to sign [Wright attended Stanford University] and I had to get it in the mail.”
Wright’s ties to old friends are strong. She keeps track of their lives and writes graceful notes for important occasions. Wright seldom speaks of her glory years. She is grateful when honors come her way, such as when the Associated Press named her Female Golfer of the Century in 1999, but it all seems so long ago.
“It’s as if it happened to someone else,” she said.
In August, Wright was informed that the USGA would like to house her artifacts in the USGA Museum and she went to work. Trophies, awards, paintings, books, photos and films were pulled from closets and from under beds. On Sept. 1, she emailed her first inventory. “Whew, what a job,” she wrote.
Her list included her notes:
#7 – MY FAVORITE PICTURE: Fourth hole at Baltusrol Golf Club. Last day, last round, 40-foot putt went in and probably won the championship for me. [From 1961, the third of Wright’s four U.S. Women’s Open victories]
#17 – 1954 U.S. Women’s Open badge, Salem Country Club, Peabody, Mass. Babe’s [Zaharias] last Open win and I was low amateur.
Rand Jerris, USGA managing director of public affairs, and Robert Williams, the USGA Museum director, wanted to stage Wright’s collection in a dedicated Museum room that would complement the existing Bob Jones Room, Ben Hogan Room and Arnold Palmer Room. The only remaining room was a 25-foot-by-25-foot space. Davis, the USGA’s executive director, who ranks Wright among the finest golfers in history, was more than enthusiastic.
“Don’t we have a bigger room?” Davis asked.
“It’s plenty big enough,” Wright responded. “I’m thrilled.”
With wholehearted support from the USGA Executive Committee, plans were approved and Wright was notified Oct. 6.
“I can’t believe this is real,” she emailed, attaching a list of 25 home movies from her collection:
#1 – My dog, “Jock,” 1955, my first year as a professional.
#25 – 1965, Shady Oaks Country Club, Fort Worth, Texas, with Polly Riley, Marty Leonard, Ben Hogan.
“I’m just so excited I can hardly stand it,” she wrote.
Memories flooded in as Wright sorted her memorabilia. On Oct. 21 she wistfully noted, “I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes. A letter from Joe Dey written in 1954, right after I turned pro, giving me some fatherly advice. It was beautiful! I cherished it at the time and am so grateful to have it now. What a wonderful man he was. No wonder we all loved him so.”
Wright is keeping a few precious items, including the letter from the late Joseph C. Dey Jr., longtime executive director of the USGA, as well as her 2010 Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship, the USGA’s highest honor.
Susan Wasser, coordinator of special Museum projects for the USGA, arrived at Wright’s Florida home in early November to photograph each artifact, record Wright’s memories and pack the collection for shipping. Wasser, Wright and Wright’s close friend Peggy Wilson worked together for two days to complete the task.
Wright enjoys the simplicity of her life today, but the Mickey Wright Room is a later-life tribute that means a great deal. The room will give visitors the opportunity to see films of the golf swing that both Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson said was the greatest ever.
The shots she had hit with that glorious swing, the driving legs, the lashing hands and the “Crack!” as the ball shot into the air. Perfect timing. Efficient. Powerful. Some golfers have swings that seem just as technically perfect but Wright’s swing had a glorious quality seldom seen – it was beautiful in its flowing grace.
She had all the shots: powerful 3-irons that soared, then settled softly on the green; a high draw or the occasional soft fade; the driver smacked off hardpan; the gentle chip. Rawls and Whitworth still chuckle with joy when recalling shots they saw Wright hit.
Wright virtually retired after the 1960s, emerging for just a few scattered events. In 1973, she played in just eight tournaments, but won the Colgate-Dinah Shore, defeating a field that included JoAnne Carner, Hollis Stacy, Susie Maxwell and Pat Bradley. She has been quoted as saying she wanted to be the best woman golfer in the world and when she felt she had achieved that, she quit. A month ago, I asked if that really was the reason.
“I quit because I didn’t want to ruin it,” Wright said.
The Mickey Wright Room is scheduled to open in June, and the USGA is making arrangements for contestants in the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, to be played June 18-23 at Neshanic Valley Golf Course in Neshanic Station, N.J., to be among the first to tour the room. Wright is pleased that the young women will see her clubs, trophies, photos and films.
On Nov. 4, as a truck arrived at Wright’s home to pick up the artifacts, she tossed a last item, a large bag of golf tees inscribed “Mickey Wright,” into one of the crates.
“They’re the tees I used in tournaments,” Wright said. “Do you think the players might like to have one as a memento?”
Yes, I think they’d like that. I think they’d like that very much.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.