Fifty years ago, Bill Wright was an ambitious young golfer with boundless potential, a historic win at a national championship, and one insurmountable handicap: the color of his skin
There is an air of patrician gentility about Bill Wright as he strides into the restaurant of a self-consciously hip Los Angeles hotel. It is Oscars week, and diners' heads swivel to take the measure of any new face that enters the room.
Is he somebody?
As the 73-year-old Wright eases his trim, still athletic, 6'2" frame behind a table, people continue to stare at this man who possesses the ageless aura of a Morgan Freeman. He opens an envelope and pulls out a few photographs. The first is of a man classically posed near the end of a picture-perfect follow-through. "That's me. About 1958," he says. "You can tell by the cars in the background."
A fashionably disheveled waiter with an Ian Poulter hairstyle pauses behind his chair. "Wow, that's a swing." Wright looks up at him. "Do you play?" The young man stands up straight. "Yes, sir. I played at Loyola Marymount. I'm from Canton, Ohio. I was a Golden Bear." Bill Wright nods warmly.
"I played two practice rounds with Jack at the 1959 National Amateur. I was putting by myself on the practice green. My scheduled playing partners had refused to play with me. Then an older gentleman, Mr. Charles 'Chick' Evans, came over. He won the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open in 1916. He said he knew what the problem was and asked me if I'd like to play in his group. He already had two young fellars, and I would make up the four. One was Deane Beman, a future commissioner of the PGA Tour, and the other was a heavy-looking guy. I looked at him and thought, 'Heck, how can he play?' But he could play. That was Jack Nicklaus."
Wright casually picks up the next photograph. It is of himself and Tiger Woods, taken in Newport, R.I., in 1995, after Woods had won the second of his three U.S. Amateur titles. The waiter opens his mouth to speak but no words emerge. Then Wright reaches into his inside jacket pocket and takes out his wallet. He tosses his PGA Tour card (member since 1971) down beside his plate. "It's up to date," he says. "I can still go out on the Tour." The waiter continues to look at the photograph of Woods.
Wright illustrates the "problem" that Evans spotted by simply rubbing the four fingers of his right hand against the back of his left hand.
He accompanies this gesture with a winsome smile that barely masks a reservoir of pain occasioned by years of subtle (and not so subtle) insults that he has been forced to first absorb, and then rationalize, and then purge himself of. This frustrating process is an inextricable part of being black in America and of trying to achieve while shouldering the burden of racial prejudice. The story of American sport is littered with narratives of men and women who, under this burden, stooped and stumbled but ultimately triumphed. But for every Jackie Robinson, there were hundreds of others who didn't make it.
William Wright was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1936, the only child of Bob, a postman, and Madeline, a schoolteacher. When he was 12, the family moved first to Portland and then to Seattle, where Bill was introduced to golf by his father, who occasionally caddied for Billy Eckstine when the great jazz singer was in town. Young Bill's first love was basketball, and as a free-scoring power forward he led his high school team to the city championship. Bob Wright understood his boy's competitive fire and used it to stimulate his love of golf. One day while playing at Jefferson Park (the public course where Fred Couples would later learn the game), Bob pointed out the city junior golf champion and told his son that he would never beat him. As he hoped, Bill bristled at the comment and told his father that he would do so within a year. Twelve months later, Bill Wright was the city junior champion. He imagined that the next stage might be a scholarship to the University of Washington or Seattle University, but when neither institution offered him a place he found himself recruited by Western Washington State College (now Western Washington University) in the small town of Bellingham, near the Canadian border.