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.”