Wright & Wronged: The Story of African-American Golfer Bill Wright

Wright & Wronged: The Story of African-American Golfer Bill Wright

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Wright at the driving range where he teaches near LAX airport.
Angus Murray

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.

Bill Wright stretches and leans back in his
chair. “Bellingham,” he says, rolling the word
around in his mouth as though savoring a
good wine. “You know, the golf coach sat me
down and told me that if anything happened
on campus that upset me or wasn’t right then
I should come and tell him and he would deal
with it. But he let me know that if anything
happened down in Bellingham, then there
wasn’t much that he could do. It turns out
that Negroes, as we said back then, on their
way from California to relocate in Canada
had been arrested in Bellingham for simply
looking in shop windows.”

Despite the fact that he was the State
amateur champion, Wright was not made to
feel welcome while practicing with the rest
of the college golf team on the grounds of
Bellingham Country Club. When his coach
told him that the country club was about
to withdraw privileges to the college team,
Wright decided to practice by himself at a
scrappy four-hole facility nearby. All talk
of the college golf team being barred from
the country club was soon dropped. Still,
as a senior, he captured the 1960 NAIA
individual collegiate national title, and
he’d already achieved national recognition
the previous year at the 1959 U.S. Amateur
Public Links Championship, which was held

at the Wellshire Golf Course in Denver.

His game held up reasonably well through
qualifying, and he squeezed into the matchplay
portion of the championship by a single
stroke. In the semifinal he one-putted 23 of
the 36 greens to beat the 1957 champion,
Don Essig, on the final hole. In the final,
Wright beat Frank Campbell, a former
professional who had been reinstated as an
amateur, 3 and 2. At 23, Wright became the
Public Links champion and the first African-
American to win a championship conducted
by the United States Golf Association.

Shortly after the trophy presentation,
the real world intruded again. A Seattle
journalist called Wright and asked him what
it felt like to be the first black man to win a
national title. Wright slammed the phone
down. Although he was proud of being both
black and a champion, it hadn’t occurred to

Wright to think of his victory in any terms
other than golf. “I wasn’t mad,” he said later.
“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 completed his bachelor’s degree
in education, married Ceta Smith from
Chicago, and began teaching elementary
school in the Watts section of Los Angeles.
His dream was to become a professional golfer,
but he quickly realized that
possessing both a college
degree and a national title
wasn’t going to make life
in the pro ranks any easier
for him than it had been
for the generations of black
golfers who had preceded
him. Ceta still remembers
her husband’s frustration
during the ’60s. “We never
doubted his ability, but we
did notice that there were
people who didn’t have
his game, but who had
money and therefore two
or three years to settle in
and feel comfortable on
the Tour,” she says. “But
for us it was always save
and try to qualify, save and
try to qualify.”

The history of American golf
in the twentieth century is replete
with stories of men and women
who fought for the right to be
allowed to play alongside white golfers, but
whose talents were never given the chance
to flourish.

In 1943, the PGA of America wrote
a “Caucasians only” clause into its
constitution. It stated that membership
was available only to “Professional golfers
of the Caucasian race, over the age of
eighteen years, residing in North or South
America, and who have served at least five
years in the profession.” This directive was
still on the books when Wright won the
Public Links title, more than a decade after
Robinson had integrated baseball, and the
exclusion of blacks had led, as in baseball, to
the growth of a parallel tour under the aegis

of the United Golfers Association (UGA),
which enabled black golfers to compete
among themselves, albeit it on inferior
courses and for a lot less prize money than
was available on the PGA Tour.

Black golfers had traditionally emerged
through the ranks of caddies and hustlers,
but no matter how talented they happened
to be, they were prevented from playing
competitively against whites. There were,
of course, those who challenged the status

quo. I n 1952, former heavyweight champion
turned golfer Joe Louis, accompanied by
three black professionals — Bill Spiller,
Teddy Rhodes and Charlie Sifford — tried
to qualify for the Phoenix Open. The four
were barred from using the locker room and
were grouped together because no white
golfer would play with them. First off the
tee in the morning, the foursome went to
putt out on the first green only to discover
that the cup had been filled with human
excrement. However, by the ’60s things
were changing not only in America, but
also in golf. In November 1961, the PGA
of America dropped the “Caucasians only”
clause, but Wright shrugs his shoulders and
remembers that “they might have made it
possible for us to play, but they didn’t give
us any money or any exemptions. For me,
coming along when I did, the real barrier

was finding the money that would enable
me to play.”

Without the backing of a country club
or corporate sponsors, black golfers found
it tough to compete on their own tour, let
alone join the PGA Tour. Traditionally,
black entertainers had backed the players:
Joe Louis employed Teddy Rhodes as his
pro, while Billy Eckstine sponsored Charlie
Sifford. “Nat King Cole was once going to
sponsor half of me,” Wright remembers with
a smile. “There was talk of
a doctor in Seattle putting
in for the other half, but it
all went wrong. And then
Johnny Mathis made an
approach to sponsor me,
but he had some business
difficulties so that never
worked out.”

But reaching the Tour
was only the first battle. In
1961, Sifford became the
first black man to receive
an invitation to play a
PGA Tour event in the
South, which led to one
of golf’s ugliest incidents.
In his 1992 book, Just Let
Me Play, Sifford recounts
taking the first-day lead
at the Greater Greensboro
Open, then being racially

abused from the first tee to the 14th
green in the second round by a drunken
mob of a dozen young white men. They
taunted Sifford during his backswing and
surrounded his ball with beer cans, until
the police finally arrived and removed the
hecklers from the course.

Things were not much better for Lee
Elder, or Jim Thorpe, or even Calvin
Peete, who eventually became the most
successful of them all, registering 12 Tour
wins and two Ryder Cup appearances. “We
just didn’t seem to get the exemptions that
would let us into tournaments,” Wright
says wistfully. He drifted in and out of the
Tour trying to qualify for tournaments,
but without a sponsor and sleeping at the
YMCA, life was tough and demoralizing.
Eventually he returned to Los Angeles
and began detailing cars before acquiring

a leasing business and owning a Lincoln
Mercury dealership in Pasadena. His eyes
narrow slightly as he turns back the years
in his mind. “There was no chance to get a
little break,” he says.

The tousle-haired waiter reappears and
whispers in my ear, “What’s his name?” I
tell him he is serving a national champion,
a man who 50 years ago shook up a sport
that all too often saw itself as a bulwark
against change. But Bill Wright did not
change the sport or usher in a new era.
One man’s excellence cannot, by itself,
redress years of imbalance. In the end,
Wright had options and he utilized
them. He taught school, he nurtured his
dealership, but golf remained his passion.
He played in the 1966 U.S. Open at the
Olympic Club in San Francisco and in
five U.S. Senior Opens, but I wonder if
he feels that he fulfilled his potential. He
shakes his head.

“Maybe if I’d had to stay out there like
some of them, I’d have done more. But
some of the things we had to deal with
were not easy,” he says. “Playing with
guys who wouldn’t shake hands with you
but who would smile and say things like,
‘I think that Jim Dent is the best of all you
guys.’ Did I say to them, ‘I think that Jack
Nicklaus is the best of all you guys?’ It
was tough, and in the end I decided I had
to make a living.”

The Lakes at El Segundo is a ninehole,
par-29 executive course and
driving range located in the small,
blue-collar city of El Segundo.
The border to the north is LAX airport; to
the south lies prosperous Manhattan Beach.
El Segundo itself is dominated by a huge oil
refinery and acres of industrial wasteland that
are slowly being transformed into space for
shopping malls and offices. For the past four
years Wright has been a teaching professional
at The Lakes. He tees up a ball on the range
and looks at the fence 280 yards away. “Let’s
see if we can get this sucker out there.” He
hasn’t bothered to tie his shoelaces, and as
he addresses the ball, the half-dozen golfers
nearby stop what they’re doing and watch.
With an effortless sweep he sends out a high
draw that drops just short of the boundary. I
wonder whose swing he studied.

“Sam Snead,” he says. “I always watched
Sam Snead. When I was a boy and Snead
turned up at the Seattle Open, my mother
would drive there and we’d watch him all
day. I’d lie by the putting green and watch
him putt and then chip. I followed him to
Portland, and my mother even drove me
to Canada to watch him. Some years later, I

was practicing for a tournament and Snead
was there. He must have been in his sixties
by then. He asked me if I wanted to play, and
I couldn’t get to the first tee quickly enough.
At about the fifth hole he looked at me and
said, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ So
I told him, and he immediately remembered.
He even remembered my mother. ‘Well,’
said Snead, ‘why didn’t you come up and
get an autograph?’ I looked at Snead and did
this” — Wright rubs the back of his left hand
with the fingers of his right hand — “and he
said, ‘Yes, I know. I was bad then, but I’m not
like that now.'”

Everybody at The Lakes seems to know
Wright, and as we move to leave they call
out to him. The golfers are mainly white,
but there are a few black and Asian faces.
Things have changed on Tour, things have
changed in America, and a black golfer is in

the White House, but on countless courses
across the country, the appearance of a
golfer with the complexion of a Bill Wright
can still turn heads. Wright drives me
through Los Angeles to my hotel, with the
bass of Miles Davis’s “So What” throbbing
on his car stereo. He recounts a particularly
unpleasant incident at Riviera Country Club
only three years ago, when a white carpark
attendant questioned the legitimacy
of his PGA card and refused him entry.

I ask him if he has any explanation for
the fact that there were at least a half dozen
African-American pros on the PGA Tour
in the ’70s and ’80s but today there is
only one playing regularly on tour, albeit
extraordinarily. “You need somebody to
give you the game. Like a father. Somebody
to inspire you,” he says. “Either that or have
a job in the game, but there are hardly any
caddies anymore, so that route is closed
off.” He glances across at me. “You know,
today’s kids just give up too easily. I don’t
know why, but if they can’t be the best they
don’t want to try.”

I remind Wright of something the young
white waiter at the restaurant had said. He
told us that his father had introduced him
to the game when he was three, but now
he doesn’t play. He claimed to be “burned
out.” Wright laughs and shakes his head.
“Burned out?” He pauses. “You know, for
the black kids, it’s just not cool to want to

play golf. Basketball, yes, but not golf.” Which,
of course, makes no sense, because Wright,
whether in a restaurant or on the driving
range, is the epitome of cool.

Fifty years after one of the outstanding
achievements in golf, it is easy to detect a
trace of regret in Wright for what might
have been. As he continues to drive through
the darkening streets of Los Angeles to the
rhythms of his beloved jazz, it is evident that
he remains frustrated for himself, for his
father, for Teddy Rhodes, for Charlie Sifford,
for Lee Elder, for all of the black golfers he
played with and befriended. It is also clear
that he works hard to keep his frustration in
check. And that’s the true tragedy of race in
America. Beyond the triumph of what was
achieved, one is always tempted to speculate
about what might have been — had it not
been for “the problem.”


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