William Wright, the first Black golfer to claim a USGA championship, died on Feb. 19 at the age of 84 in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. In 1959, Wright defeated Frank Campbell, 3 and 2, in the final match of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Wellshire Golf Course in Denver. It was a seminal moment in USGA history, even though the 23-year-old Wright initially considered himself only as a national champion, not the first Black to hoist a USGA trophy.
“He felt so thrilled to be the best golfer that day, not the best Black golfer,” said Ceta Wright, who was married to Bill for 60 years, in an interview with the Seattle Times. “And, of course, afterward he realized that he was a barrier breaker and that was important to him. It was important to everyone, really, and especially in the Black community.”
Shortly after the trophy presentation, a Seattle journalist called Wright and asked what it was like to be the first African American to win a national championship. Wright, who was about to enter his senior year at Western Washington College, slammed the phone down.
Wright later told golf.com, “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 me that other people were thinking [about race]. I was just playing golf.”
Wright competed that week with only 12 clubs: two woods, nine irons and a putter. His opponent from Jacksonville, Fla., had been a professional for four years before regaining his amateur status and returning to the insurance business.
Wright was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1936, the only child of Bob and Madeline Wright. His father was a postman and his mother a schoolteacher. The family moved to Portland, Ore., when he was 12 and later to Seattle, where Wright was introduced to the game by his father at Jefferson Park, the same municipal course where future Masters champion Fred Couples honed his skills.