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Mickey Wright, 85; Four-Time U.S. Women’s Open Champion Dies

By Lisa D. Mickey

| Feb 17, 2020

Mary Kathryn “Mickey” Wright, winner of 82 LPGA Tour events and 13 major championships, including a record-tying four U.S. Women’s Opens, died from a heart attack on Feb. 17 in Port St. Lucie, Fla., three days after her 85th birthday.

Wright was regarded as one of the greatest golfers in the game’s history. In a four-year span between 1961 and 1964, Wright won 44 tournaments, including eight major championships. She finished either first or second in more than half of the events she entered during this stretch. World Golf Hall of Fame member Tom Watson called it “the best run anybody has ever had in golf.”

"Mickey Wright was one of the true legends in the history of golf. Her incredible talent, her mystique and her truly remarkable golf swing will continue to inspire future generations," said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA. "Mickey made such a positive impact on everyone she met and her kindness, generosity and leadership in women's golf is her greatest legacy in the game."

VIDEO: Mickey Wright Room Tribute

Wright possessed a swing hailed by legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson as the greatest of all-time – male or female. It combined power, athleticism, rhythm and flowing grace, producing maximum clubhead speed and extension through impact. She was one of the longest hitters of her era, producing high, soaring fairway-wood and long-iron shots that separated her from her peers.

In June 2012, Wright became the first woman – and fourth player – to be honored with her own exhibition room at the USGA Golf Museum in Liberty Corner, N.J., joining Hogan, Bob Jones and Arnold Palmer. Jack Nicklaus became the fifth person to have a dedicated room in 2015. Wright donated more than 200 personal items for the Mickey Wright Room. She also received the Bob Jones Award, the USGA's highest honor, in 2010.

Born Feb. 14, 1935 in San Diego, Calif., Wright first fell in love with golf in 1946 while watching an exhibition match between Nelson and Leo Diegel at San Diego Country Club. She began taking golf lessons from Johnny Bellante, the head professional at nearby La Jolla Country Club, and managed to break 100 there by age 12. She studied the swings of fellow San Diegans and future USGA champions Billy Casper and Gene Littler, who hit practice balls on the same range where Wright was learning the game.

Wright finished as runner-up in the 1950 U.S. Girls’ Junior and won the championship two years later, defeating future U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Barbara McIntire in the final, 1 up, at Monterey Peninsula Country Club in Pebble Beach, Calif. In 1954, she was runner-up in the U.S. Women’s Amateur and was the low amateur in the U.S. Women’s Open, finishing fourth.

Wright enrolled at Stanford University to pursue a teaching degree, but turned professional in 1954 after one year of college. It proved to be a life-changing decision. Wright finished fifth in her first pro event and won at least one tournament in 14 consecutive seasons from 1956 to 1969.

Wright is the only woman to have owned four major titles at one time. In 1961, she won the U.S. Women’s Open and LPGA Championship, then added the Titleholders Championship and Women’s Western Open the following year.

In 1963, Wright won a record 13 LPGA Tour events – a season mark that still stands – and won four consecutive events in both 1962 and 1963. Twice, she posted an 18-hole score of 62.

In addition to winning four U.S. Women’s Open Championships (1958, 1959, 1961 and 1964) by the age of 30 – joining Betsy Rawls as the only four-time champions – Wright also won the LPGA Championship four times (1958, 1960, 1961 and 1963), the Titleholders Championship twice (1961 and 1962), and the Women’s Western Open three times (1962, 1963 and 1966). All were major championships during Wright’s professional career.

For much of the late 1950s and 1960s, Wright was the LPGA Tour’s top attraction and twice served as its player-president. She was always in demand by media and local civic groups, and tournament sponsors sometimes threatened to withdraw support if Wright did not play in their event. Wright tried to honor every request because the Tour was a fledgling sports property in the early 1960s and players knew their extra efforts would help assure the LPGA’s future.

Known and lauded for her nearly perfect, wide-arc golf swing, Wright’s contemporaries recognized her talent and knew the 5-foot-9 player was an anomaly for a woman in her era. Her ability to lace a 2-iron into tight greens often left her peers in awe.

“She set a standard of shotmaking that will probably never be equaled,” said Rawls in a 2011 USGA story.

In her book, The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf, the late Rhonda Glenn wrote of Wright: “Her shots had a long, soaring beauty and a distinctive sound. There was no weakness in her game, nor in her swing.”

But at 34, Wright walked away from the game, playing her last full season on the LPGA Tour in 1969. Her feet ached and her wrists hurt; to compensate for the pain, Wright eschewed traditional golf spikes for sneakers during competitive rounds.

At heart, she was also a quiet woman who longed for a life away from the spotlight. Her last win came in 1973 and her final official LPGA Tour appearance was seven years later.

When asked if she retired because she felt she was leaving as the best female golfer in the world, Wright said, “I quit because I didn’t want to ruin it.”

Even in retirement, Wright found enjoyment in the game, often hitting balls from a practice-range mat on her patio into a golf-course fairway behind her Florida residence. Before she shipped that mat off to the USGA Golf Museum in 2011, she said that those shots were taken “for the sheer pleasure of swinging a golf club.”

In her book, Glenn wrote that Wright “viewed golf as a form of self-expression, rather than a contest between people” and observed that for Wright, “each hole [was] a separate game” and “she simply added them up at the end.”

Though Wright was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1964 and the Associated Press named her the female golfer of the century in 1999, she never relished the glory of her many accolades. In fact, she skipped the LPGA’s lavish 50th anniversary celebration in 2000, and even stayed home in 2012 when the USGA opened the Mickey Wright Room. She was proud to be honored, but uncomfortable with the travel and glare of the spotlight.

Instead, Wright was driven by executing shots under pressure.

“When I play my best golf,” she said, “I feel as if I’m in a fog, standing back watching the earth in orbit with a golf club in my hands.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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