By Susan Wasser
Museum Moment: A True Champion – A Mother’s Wish Fulfilled
Jul 21, 2011
For most of us, our mothers have made a profound impact on our lives. From the intangibles and practical examples, their influences have shaped the people we have become.
This can include setting the standard of daily conduct that includes fair sportsmanship, good manners and showing respect to others.
These were values that his parents instilled in Bill Wright daily. His mother insisted that despite the adversity and inequality that prevailed against African Americans at the time, Bill was expected to rise above and act like a champion.
William (Bill) Wright was born on April 4, 1936 in Kansas City, Mo., to Bob and Madeline Wright. As a child, his family moved to the Pacific Northwest where Bill was introduced to golf by his father, an accomplished player who often caddied for jazz singer Bill Eckstine.
Wright was more interested in basketball in his youth and resisted his father’s urging to play competitively until his ego was challenged. Bob Wright suggested that Bill could not beat the top players in the city junior championship of Seattle.
Determined to prove his father wrong, Bill dedicated himself to improving his game. Twelve months later, in the first round of the city junior championship, Wright shot 68 – the lowest score recorded. The next day, Wright was barred from continuing as he did not have an established USGA Handicap Index, but in his mind he had accomplished his goal of beating the previous year’s winner.
With his sights set on qualifying for the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links (APL), Wright set out to establish a USGA handicap to gain entry into the championship. Because most Seattle clubs were still segregated at that time, however, Wright was forced to travel to Portland, Ore., to play.
Recognizing their son’s potential, Bob and Madeline Wright openly fought for Bill’s right to be able to play in Seattle. They lodged a formal complaint against Seattle’s Park Board and testified before the Washington State Board of Discrimination. His parents’ public fight influenced Wright’s desire to perform well to justify the struggle it took for him to qualify.
Wright, a senior at Western Washington University, qualified for match play at the APL with a 36-hole total of 149 at Wellshire Golf Club in Denver, Colo. He knocked off 1957 APL champ Don Essig, 2 up, in the semifinals and made history as the first African American to win a USGA championship when he defeated Frank Campbell, 3 and 2, in the 36-hole final.
In 2010, the USGA Museum and The PGA of America formed a partnership to create a centralized repository to collect artifacts, memorabilia and documents related to the rich history of African-American golf.
Wright donated several personal items to The PGA/USGA African-American Golf Archive, including a collection of documents that reinforced the profound influence his mother had on his character. Tucked within the file of paperwork is a hand-typed letter from his mother dated July 23, 1959, five days after he won the Amateur Public Links.
In Madeline Wright’s opinion, this accomplishment came with a great responsibility for her son:
July 23, 1959
TO A CHAMPION:
You are now a national champion with all the glory and fanfare, but with all the responsibilities. Responsibilities to yourself and to the world.
You deserve all the best in life. You have been a good son, and I’m very pleased with you. I’m pleased not because you have won the championship, but because in 23 years you have given me a great happiness. Each year of your life has been progressively more rewarding to me.
Winning that championship was really a grueling test of your skill and stamina. You came through it with flying colors.
The real test, however, is going to come during the next year while you are a champion in name. It’s up to you to be a champion in fact for that year and for all your life.
Be proud -- you have earned the right.
Be humble – the meek inherit the earth. Arrogance inherits only hate.
Be conscientious – in all you do, but your education is of prime importance now. “Almost got a degree” is not enough for you. It means hard word and concentration.
Be understanding – we all have faults – even you and I.
Be true to yourself – and it will follow as the night follows day you will be false to no man.
P.S. In simple English – Keep your hat on so your head won’t swell. Mother
Her postscript, written by hand, reminds her son that the act of humility can often be the greatest achievement.
Wright took his mother’s advice and earned his bachelor's degree in education. He married Ceta Smith, from Chicago, and taught elementary school for nine years in Los Angeles before buying a car dealership. Though his career as a full-time professional golfer never materialized, partly due to some difficulty obtaining sponsors, he played a limited schedule on the PGA Tour and competed in the 1966 U.S. Open and in five U.S. Senior Opens. Wright is currently a teaching professional at The Lakes at El Segundo Golf Course in El Segundo, Calif.
Throughout his life, Bill Wright has been an achiever with high ethical standards even in the face of adversity, as evidenced by his Amateur Public Links victory. Watching his parents stand firmly for what they believed in resulted in Wright’s determination, dignity and graciousness, both on and off the golf course.
Yet it was his mother’s morals and wisdom which instilled in him the qualities and characteristics of a champion.
Susan Wasser is the coordinator of special projects for the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Wright (left) receives the trophy from USGA Treasurer Emerson Carey Jr., after Wright won the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Wellshire Country Club in Englewood, Colo. (USGA Museum)
The 8-iron Bill Wright used to win the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. (USGA Museum)
Tucked within the file of paperwork is a hand-typed letter from his mother dated July 23, 1959, five days after he won the Amateur Public Links. (USGA Museum)