From the Golf Journal Archives - Home Course

Feb 10, 2012

Mickey Wright won her fourth Women’s Open in a 1964 playoff — essentially in her own neighborhood.

By Pamela Emory

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1993 issue of Golf Journal.)

MICKEY WRIGHT’S theme song for the week of the 1964 U.S. Women’s Open might well have been “Home Sweet Home.” For it was then and there, at San Diego Country Club, her home course, that the formidable Miss Wright won the 12th Women’s Open. This prestigious title was nothing new to the southern California native; she had already won three previous Open titles in her nine-year professional career. But winning when you are supposed to win, when you have “home course advantage,” with the pressure of your own and everyone else’s expectations, all make victory that much sweeter.

This summer the beautiful and difficult San Diego Country Club will again host another USGA women’s event, our oldest women’s competition, the Amateur Championship. Wright is pleased the Women’s Amateur will be played on this course. Her advice to competitors? “Practice sidehill lies. Several things stand out in my mind about the course. One is it’s a fairly tight course, but the main thing is that it’s an extremely rolling course; you never have a flat lie on it.”

San Diego Country Club’s Women’s Open, in 1964, was a superb championship; it had great competitors playing an excellent golf course. But there were also moments of levity. There was Mickey Wright doing what she knew best; she won in a dramatic 18-hole playoff against fellow touring professional Ruth Jessen. It was also the last Women’s Open with the third and fourth rounds on the same day. Finally, it was the tournament where future USGA leaders Barbara Mclntire and Judy Bell placed first and second low amateur, respectively. Mclntire’s four rounds were her usual steady, solid rounds, whereas her business partner Bell, current secretary of the USGA, shot a record 31 on the front nine of the third round en route to a 6-under-par 67. That record has been tied three times, but not broken. (Bell will be a competitor in the Women’s Amateur field this August, as she was given a special exemption by the Women’s Committee for her record-breaking performance of 1964.)

The city of San Diego was a hotbed for good golfers. Gene Littler was born there in 1930, Billy Casper a year later, and Mary Kathryn Wright in 1935. She learned from her elders – just watching Littler’s swing was an education for the precocious Wright. Early on, her father was a member at La Jolla Country Club; she took lessons from the same professional who taught the beautifully swinging Littler. Her father later joined San Diego Country Club, and Mickey had the opportunity to look, listen, and play golf with Casper. His best advice to her was to practice putting at dusk because “you can hardly see the hole, and therefore you have to feel where it is.”

Over 1,000 miles north of where Mickey was learning golf or, in her case, the perfect golf swing, another young girl, Ruth Jessen of Seattle, was also into the game in a big way. Except for Wright’s first Open title, in 1958, whenever Mickey won, Ruth was close by: in 1959, Jessen finished tied for third; in 1961, she was third; at San Diego, she was second.

For the Women’s Open, San Diego Country Club was set up at 6,470 yards and played to a par of 73. Jessen and Wright tied after 72 holes at 2-under-par 290. In the playoff, both again broke par, Jessen with a 72 to Wright’s 70. Recently, Jessen recalled that the course was “long, the rough was high, the greens tough. It was a good test of golf. It was fun to play.” (Sounds like an Open!)

Jessen was the victim of one of the most ironic shots ever. She and five other professionals were staying in a home located along the 8th hole. On the last hole of the third round, she sliced her tee shot out of bounds “and through the window of the bedroom she was occupying in our home,” recalled Ellen Bowering-Johns, Jessen’s hostess.

The second time Ruth Jessen played the 18th hole on Saturday, in the fourth round of the championship, she fared much better. Her 5-wood second shot ended up less than two feet from the hole. She sported a most unique putting style in those years – her stance was a lot wider than the birdie putt. “I knew I would make it. I wouldn’t allow any negative thoughts,” she remembers.

After signing her scorecard, Jessen waited by the green to watch Wright play the home hole. Mickey needed a birdie to win or a par to tie. Wright was always known for her special ability to hit high, soft long-iron shots. She hit just such a shot into the 18th green, but this one was slightly off-line and ended up in a bunker to the right of the putting surface. Jessen could see Wright’s lie, which was “decent,” and she wasn’t at all surprised when Mickey’s shot ended up five feet from the hole. The putt was a right-to-left breaking sidehill downhill tester, one Mickey stroked “dead in,” according to Jessen. Wright tossed her ball to the hometown gallery. The playoff was set for the next day.

Wright and others preferred the Women’s Open as a three-day championship with the final two rounds played on the same day. This winter she explained, “A lot of us old-timers thought that it was a shame that format was dropped because there was certainly an element of stamina, endurance, and all that. We hated to see it go. Ruthie and I tied, and we went into the 18-hole playoff the next day. That’s a lot of golf in a 24-hour period. Thank God I was young enough to do it then.”

Wright was well known for her length off the tee, but Jessen was also a long hitter. Their nicknames were, according to Jessen, “Big Smoke” (Wright) and “Little Smoke” (Jessen). Wright described the playoff: “It was a very good playoff. I hit 16 greens; she hit 5. She played almost every hole out of a bunker and got the ball up and down every time. It was a real contrast in methods that day. It was just a great match.” Perhaps most significant, these two women walked a very difficult, long golf course, playing for the most important title in women’s golf, in three hours and six minutes.

Of her 82 career victories, the one at San Diego Country Club means the most to Mickey. “The 1964 Women’s Open was absolutely the most important tournament I ever played, the most important win of my career. It was the only tournament where my mother and father both were there to watch. There’s nothing like winning on your home course, your fourth U.S. Open, the whole bit. To me it was the absolute culmination of my career.”

How does it feel to hole a 5-footer to force a playoff at a national championship? This unrestrained move by Mickey Wright tells it all; she’s just forced a playoff with Ruth Jessen at the 1964 U.S. Women’s Open. (USGA Museum)

A moment of respite, a drink of water. (USGA Museum)

“The 1964 Women’s Open was absolutely the most important tournament I ever played, the most important win of my career … To me it was the absolute culmination of my career. (USGA Museum)