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First African-American to Win USGA Title
Editor’s Note: In conjunction with the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship coming to the Pacific Northwest this summer, various stories will be forthcoming about the event, to be held at Golf Mountain Golf Course in Bremerton, Wash., on July 10-15. The following is the story of the first African-American to win a USGA title, Bill Wright. Wright, a Seattle-area golfer, overcame myriad hurdles to win the championship in 1959. Here’s Wright’s story as told my PNGA Media’s Paul Ramsdell.
In a relatively short time span, William A. Wright, or Bill to most of his friends, went from not being welcomed to join the men’s club at Seattle’s public golf courses to being invited to play a round of golf with some of the legendary figures of American golf. That’s what winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship can do for you.
The story of Bill Wright is always worth revisiting, but this year especially so with the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship set for Gold Mountain in Bremerton, Wash. Wright was the first player from Washington state to win that championship.
More importantly, when the 23-year-old student at Western Washington State College won that crown in 1959, he became the first African-American to claim a championship conducted by the United States Golf Association.
“It was just a different time as far as, you know, the racial thing that was there,” said Wright, now a 69-year-old golf instructor at The Lakes at El Segundo, near Los Angeles. He still plays competitively, including numerous past starts on the Champions Tour and four U.S. Senior Opens.
For Wright, looking back includes a lot of distressing stories, but a few uplifting ones as well. “There was a lot going on, and there’s a lot of it I deliberately don’t remember.”
There is one heart-warming story, however, that Wright will never forget. It was later in the summer of 1959, after he won the National Public Links title and was off to play in the National Amateur at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“You play as a team when you qualify for the National Amateur, and my team wouldn’t play with me and didn’t play with me,” Wright said. “My team wouldn’t fly on the same flight with me.”
So there he was on the putting green at Broadmoor, virtually a man without a team. An older gentleman approached him. “He came over and he said, ‘Would you like to play?’ And then he said, ‘I know what’s going on, Bill.’ ”
The gentleman was Charles ‘Chick’ Evans, the 1916 winner of both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open, and one of the most storied career amateurs in the history of golf. His dedication to caddies led to the Evans Scholarship Fund that continues to provide college educations to hundreds of caddies across the U.S. “Chick invited me to play with him,” Wright said. “He was an old man, he should have been the one who was a bigot.”
Evans already had two other players lined up for the two practice rounds, and Wright then made it a foursome. “So I played with him, and in that group was Deane Beman, who was a Walker Cupper, and Jack Nicklaus, so I played two practice rounds with Nicklaus.”
Nicklaus won the championship that year, and Beman, later the commissioner of the PGA Tour, won it the next year. In fact, from 1959 to 1963, Nicklaus and Beman each won two titles in that five-year span.
So Chick Evans invited one national champion to join two future national champions. “Amongst all kinds of goings on, there was a man who had a lot of foresight,” Wright said of Evans. “And the same night – and I was the National Public Links champion at that time – he said, ‘Bill, I want you to go into the clubhouse, I want you to get a locker, and I want you to dress in there, change your shoes, and do everything in there, and the way will be paid. And I want you to sit at the head table.’ My teammates then came over to say hello, when I’m sitting at the head table.”
Wright earned that spot at the head table with a miraculous week of golf, especially on the greens, at the Public Links Championship earlier that summer. “In that situation, I had some amazing rounds of putting, but I was hitting the ball fairly close to the hole too,” Wright said of the championship at Wellshire Golf Course in Denver.
It was a three-putt, though, on the last hole of the 36 holes of qualifying to get into the match-play portion of the championship that Wright thought had doomed him. “I three-putted that hole to, I thought, not qualify,” Wright said.
Getting into the match-play portion was extremely critical to Wright and his father, Bob Wright, to prove to fellow golfers back in Seattle that Bill was worthy of a spot in the national championship. “I was almost in tears because I thought I hadn’t qualified,” he said.
As it turned out, others had problems on that final green as well, and Wright ended up earning a spot in the match-play portion. “Having qualified just to play match play was satisfying to me.”
At that point, however, his game kicked into high gear. “I wasn’t really playing well when I got there, then all of a sudden I started getting my game back. And after I got it back, well, I wasn’t worried about it.”
Wright went on birdie streaks on the fifth through ninth holes of virtually every match to take command early in each round. His first victim, Mat Palacio, Jr., a car dealer from San Rafael, Calif., was impressed with Wright’s game. “After the round, he says, ‘Bill, I know you’re going to win this tournament so I’m going to follow you each round,’ ” Wright said.
“Right there, he felt I was playing well enough to win it and he had been in quite a few of these tournaments.”
As Wright made quick work of his competition that week, any racial issues were kept to whispers. “Actually, the whole tournament they had more people following me than ever in the Public Links at that time, and they were pulling for me.”
Racial issues, however, were common back home in Seattle before that championship. Trying to join a men’s club at one of the public courses so he could establish an official handicap and apply to play in various tournaments was difficult. “That was the big problem. The big problem was they were afraid there would be . . . they didn’t know what they were afraid of,” Wright said, his voice trailing off.
The first year he played in the Seattle City Amateur he was still a junior, but fired a 68. Then some tournament officials said he wasn’t eligible. “They kicked me out in other words.”
Jim Liddell grew up with Wright, and saw first-hand some of the challenges he went through. “It was frustrating, not getting judged by your skills,” Liddell said.
At the time when they both were 11 or 12, Liddell and Wright were friends, and they still stay in touch today. “We had a group of guys who were very athletic and very driven, and we used to go down to the park and played a lot of basketball,” Liddell said.
Wright played for Franklin High and made all-state in 1954 as Franklin won the state title. He went on to play basketball at Western Washington as well but, according to Liddell, it wasn’t his top priority. “His first love was golf. Once he got into high school and started to play competitive golf, golf was his future and he always knew that.”
Wright was exposed to golf by his father, who was good enough that he played in the 1963 U.S. Amateur Public Links, four years after his son won the title. Bob and Madeline Wright worked hard to break some barriers so their son could have a chance to compete on a national level. Bob Wright also instilled a competitive nature in his son.
“My dad and I would talk, ‘Bill, you can beat this person, and you know you can beat him, so beat him.’ ” It was a pep talk that worked well for both basketball and golf.
His father had to touch that competitive nerve in his son just to get him interested in golf in the first place. “The very first time we went to a golf course, I didn’t want to play golf,” Bill remembered almost 60 years ago. “I mean nobody in the community was interested in golf really. I mean, who wanted to play golf?”
His father took Bill over to the course, and watched as the city’s reigning junior champ at the time was hitting balls. “He said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it, Bill, you can’t beat him anyway.’ ”
It was that type of challenge Bill Wright loved. “He knew the competitive spirit I had.”
At that point, Bill vowed to be able to beat the junior champ in one year’s time, and that’s exactly what happened. And it led to a lifetime in the game of golf, with countless achievements and accomplishments along the way. That’s what a competitive spirit can do for you.
About the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship
The Public Links determines the national champion among players who don’t have regular access to a private course. The winner also is invited to play in the 2007 Masters. For more details, visit http://www.usapl.org.