From the Golf Journal Archives - It Was a Very Good Year

Feb 05, 2010

On Feb. 6, 2010, Mickey Wright will be honored with the USGA Bob Jones Award at the Association’s Annual Meeting.

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1983 issue of Golf Journal.)

Mickey Wright won 13 tournaments in 1963 and dominated the LPGA Tour as no one ever has.

By Rhonda Glenn

MICKEY WRIGHT stood on the hill, reluctant monarch of all she surveyed. Below her, a few college girls approached the 18th green. A couple of them would turn professional soon. They would go through the LPGA Qualifying School, then chase fame and fortune on a tour that today offers more than $7 million in prize money.

The woman standing on the hill had a great deal to do with that. Just as surely as the LPGA could not have begun without Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg, it could not have survived without Mickey Wright. She would never admit it; she never needed that kind of attention.

Down there near the 18th green somewhere was Mickey’s old friend Earl Stewart, coach of the Southern Methodist University golf team. This was his tournament; he had asked her to come.

“You won’t have to do a damn thing, honey,” he said.

So, Mickey was making this appearance in Dallas, Texas, for Earl. Just appearing — she hadn’t come to play. Those days are over now.

Mickey Wright’s final competitive round was played on May 20, 1979, at Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, N.J. – a one-under-par 72. It was the Coca-Cola Classic and there was a five-way tie for first place. She lost in the end, but for a while Mickey was in a playoff and all the world was young.

Now she stood atop the hill in Dallas, hands on hips.

“Well, look who’s here!” she called. Laughing, she half-hopped over a low hedge and with the friendliness of an old school chum, she vigorously shook hands.

We talked of various things: friends she had seen and her long trip from Florida. She had driven as she always liked to, barreling across the South in a big white Cadillac, her radio probably tuned to country-and-western music.

I mentioned the Tour and the big tournament underway in Palm Springs. She showed no interest, saying only that the California weather had been bad this year, as though the Tour was the least important of all things that might cross her mind.

She looked slimmer than I remembered, and less tan. Something else was different; the intensity was gone. Players of high purpose have an aura of fierce energy, and they walk quickly, as if they have some important place to go. Mickey Wright, who used to stride as if she were leaning slightly into the wind, moves along today in a leisurely stroll.

“Are you going to play in the Open?” I asked. To honor her historic achievements, she had been given a special invitation to play in the 1983 U.S. Women's Open at the Cedar Ridge Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.

“I haven’t decided,” she said sharply. There was a sudden bite to her voice and her face clouded. For a moment I sincerely wished that I had not asked.

“They said the invitation would be there if I wanted to play,” she commented.

The cloud passed and she smiled, speculating about Oklahoma heat in late July, but for the first time I understood — as much as I would ever understand — the pressure of having once been the greatest player in the world.

NO ONE knows the precise ingredients of a champion, although we’ve all had our opinions. They are honed by hard work, of course, but they are also gifted, and the personality is both part of the gift and part of the burden of the gift. Mickey Wright’s personality, outwardly so serene, is a powerful mixture of hard-driven talent teamed with perfectionism and sensitivity. It can be a difficult combination. She was described during her career as “a driven person, highly self-critical and beset by self-doubt.”

It is an analysis with which she totally agrees.

“I guess it really is neurotic!” she laughs now. “It’s much, much better now, but it is like a monkey on your back; you have to get it off at some point. It really wears you out. If you spend your life trying to impress or please other people, it’s a tremendous strain, because you can’t do it. If you set that as your own standard, which I did, it’s very hard to get happiness or satisfaction from what you do, because nothing is ever enough.”

I had last seen her in 1979 at Hilton Head, S.C. There, in that very private little tournament, the Women’s International, she practiced quietly under the pines. One by one the players drifted over until a fairly large crowd stood behind her, remaining a respectful distance away. I had not seen this with any other player, although I have heard that male professionals used to watch Ben Hogan with that same respect.

“The players always watched Mickey because she came out so seldom,” says Kathy Whitworth. “Some of the younger ones had never seen her swing. They’d heard about the great swing of Mickey Wright, so they would watch. But we all watched because we were never sure if it would be our last chance.”

NO ONE really knows why Mickey quit, or even how she quit. She seems mystified herself.

From 1959 to 1965 she set records that have stood for 20 years. Then she left – not so much storming out the door as cautiously asking for a trial separation. When she came back, her romance with professional golf had lost its youthful glow. It was troubled now, and a little stale. So she left for good, although she has been hesitant to put any finality to it. Publicly at least, Miss Wright has left her options open.

She has not competed in four years, but a wistful little trail of letters addressed to Mickey Wright follows the Tour from coast to coast. They seem like valentines from her fans, who live on the impossible hope that she will return.

HISTORY NOTES few women golfers who were truly superb. Some were shotmakers, thinkers with great short games. Some, having found the formula of strength and grace, were long hitters. A few had picture swings. They were all determined women, perfectionists with keen minds, competitors with fire in their eyes. It takes that. But only Mickey Wright could make the game sing.

She won 82 tournaments during her incredible career. She won four Women’s Opens (1958, 1959, 1961, 1964) and four LPGA Championships (1958, 1960, 1961, 1963). Twice she had rounds of 62. She won 10 tournaments in 1961 and again in 1962. In 1964 she won 11.

But her best year was 1963; she won 13.

“It was probably the most fun year of them all, because things hadn’t built to a peak of expectation on me. It wasn’t unbearable at that point,” she says.

In those days the Tour began in late January at Sea Island Golf Club, on the coast near Savannah in that part of Georgia known as the Golden Isles. It is one of the great courses in the southeastern United States.

Sea Island is Mickey Wright's favorite course.

“My love,” she says. “If I could play only one course for the rest of my life, Sea Island would be my choice. Of course, I think it’s tough for a woman in the winter, but as a course that’s pretty, fun to play and one that gives you a real good feeling, Sea Island does that for me.”

Sea Island on February 3, 1963, was not a pastoral scene. The Atlantic was raging and the wind pounded the coast with wintry blasts. Play was called on Sunday, and on Monday they tried again. Bundled in layers of sweaters and windbreakers, the players and caddies huddled around smudge-pots on the tees to warm their hands, then bent low into the wind to fight their way up the fairways.

It was on this ferocious final day that Mickey played a round that separated her from the rest. Five players broke 80, four of them with 79.

Mickey Wright shot 73 and won the tournament by 10 strokes.

“The main emotion going into any season was fear,” she says. “Every season, just every season. It was the fear that no matter how good the year before had been, this year would not be as good. The pressure to win that first tournament is unbelievable.”

Yet her awesome Sea Island victory under difficult conditions on one of the greatest courses she would play gave Mickey Wright the momentum for her finest year.

THE PLAYERS barreled across the Black Bank River, over the toll bridge, down Route 17 and across Florida to St. Petersburg for the St. Pete Open. On Sunset Golf Club, a resort course designed by Donald Ross, the Scotsman who came to the United States and laid out some of this country's better courses, Mickey made up two strokes in the final round to tie Marilynn Smith, then shot 69 in a playoff round to win by nine strokes.

Mickey remembers nothing about it.

On May 12, at the Alpine Civitan Open in Alexandria, La., Miss Wright began a record-tying streak. She won that tournament by one stroke over JoAnn Prentice. She would not lose another event until June 9.

Following the Alpine Civitan Open, she won by eight strokes in Muskogee, Okla.; she won by five strokes in the Dallas Civitan Open; and she won by five strokes in the Babe Zaharias Open, in Beaumont, Texas.

She had won four successive tournaments, tying her own record of the previous year. (Kathy Whitworth won four in a row in 1969. Nancy Lopez won three in a row in 1978, but took a week off before returning to win two more in a row – but not five consecutive tournaments.)

Mickey Wright, who had won every tournament during that month in 1963, does not remember it at all.

“Were there four in a row? It started with the Alpine? I’ve practically blocked out that year. It was no big deal; nobody knew it except you and the record-keeper. If you accomplished something, you chalked it up in your own book. Oh, you had goals for yourself – because you knew about the records. When you achieved a record, it was a personal thing; it wasn’t public at all. By necessity, I guess, the game was about personal satisfaction then, and I liked it better that way.”

She won again two weeks later. Mickey says that her performance in the Women’s Western Open in Madison, Wis., was the best of her career. It was played at the Maple Bluff Country Club.

“The best I’ve played in my life, bar none. It was without doubt the toughest a course has been set up that I’ve played, including the Women’s Opens. The rough was four to six inches high, and fairways were tightened to the width of a U.S. Open. It was a fine course when Patty (Berg) won the Western Open in 1955, and in 1963 it was a backbuster!”

Mickey had returned from Portugal on Sunday before the tournament. “I don’t know how I played so well, but sometimes you get so tired that you’re in a fog. You don’t think so much about mechanics and that stuff. I may have missed one fairway all week; it was one of those dream weeks.” She finished nine strokes ahead of Kathy Whitworth.

She won three of the next four tournaments, losing only the Ogden Ladies Open in Utah, to Miss Whitworth after leading by one stroke entering the final round.

Prior to Ogden, Mickey Wright defeated Sandra Haynie by four strokes in the Waterloo Women's Open in Iowa, and Marilynn Smith by two strokes the following week at the Albuquerque Swing Parade in New Mexico. Immediately after the tournament in Utah, she won the Idaho Centennial Ladies Open in Boise, an event she now describes as “a super tournament. If I recall correctly, I believe I led the whole way (she did), and I believe that either in the first or second round, I had two eagles.'”

It was in Ogden, however, that “it became clear to me that the hardest position to play from is the lead. I had been in contention almost every single week and that just takes its toll.

“I have a philosophy that you don’t win tournaments, that the goal in playing great golf in medal play is to get in contention and to stay there until the last round. If you do that every week, you’re going to win a percentage of tournaments. You can’t miss. That being the goal, it takes a tremendous amount of concentration and emotional control to be in that position in every tournament.”

THREE WEEKS later she went on another streak, winning the Visalia Ladies Open by six strokes over Betsy Rawls in California. It was her 11th victory of the year, beating her own record of 10. “You’d think that would stand out, wouldn’t you?” she says. “I don’t remember it. Isn’t it funny? Again, I think it was because we did not think in terms of records.

“In my funny little way of doing things, I’ve always separated out single shots – not tournaments, not rounds, not holes, but right down to single shots. That’s why I have a great deal of trouble remembering tournaments. Shots stand out, not tournaments.”

Mickey, who speaks emphatically much of the time, became even more emphatic. “Let me share something with you that’s peculiar; winning golf tournaments was never a big joy to me – It was always a relief.”

When some golf leaders in La Jolla, Calif., decided to sponsor the Mickey Wright Invitational at the La Jolla Country Club, she won by five strokes but now admits that “I do recall some pressure. It was played on one of the two courses where I spent my early years, and there were old friends and family out that week.”

She played well and had the advantages of knowing the course and having once again the caddie whom she had used during her early La Jolla years.

“During that time, I was really able to concentrate on one shot at a time because I practiced it. That accounts for my winning over that period of time as much as anything.”

After a week’s break, the Tour shifted to Las Vegas, Nev., for the LPGA Championship, which was played at the Stardust Country Club. Louise Suggs led by three strokes entering the final round.

“That was a very, very tight course,” Mickey remembers. “It was one of the first housing developments we played in. It was the first time I’d seen concrete ponds.”

Mickey managed to avoid the ponds in that fourth round. She shot 70 to win by two strokes – her third consecutive victory, her fourth LPGA Championship and her 13th win of 1963.

“I’m sure I was thrilled to win another LPGA Championship, but it probably had little to do with it being my 13th victory. That tournament was done, whether it was the 12th, or 13th, or 10th win. Next week you’ve got to try to do the same thing again.”

MICKEY WRIGHT played four more official events in 1963, finishing second three times and third once. She took one week off. She had won 43 percent of the tournaments she had entered during 1963.

People who played at that time say that Mickey Wright was the LPGA Tour. Babe Zaharias was gone, and Patty Berg, Betsy Rawls, and Louise Suggs couldn’t play as well as they had. New stars like Sandra Haynie, Carol Mann, and Kathy Whitworth had not yet ascended, so the success of the Tour rested on Mickey.

She says now that her LPGA presidency added extra stress, but, ironically, it helped her to manage her time. She says that it made her feel responsible and needed, and somehow it had something to do with her spectacular play.

In 1964, she had another great year, winning 11 tournaments, including the Women's Open. In 1965, she announced her retirement, but she still does not know why.

“I have run it through my computer a million times; it is sort of the chicken-and-the-egg thing. I hurt my wrist in New Jersey before the Open. I had to withdraw the day before the Championship. I drove home to Dallas and I cried practically the entire way. It hit me that that was the end of my golf career. I can’t go through Erie, Pa., today without thinking about it because that was part of the route. I don’t know if all of the pressures made it necessary for me to find a physical excuse to get out from under it. I really don’t know.”

Mickey returned to the Tour eventually, but without her old enthusiasm. As late as 1973 she won an important tournament, the Colgate-Dinah Shore.

“I cut back from 1971 to 1978. I’d pore over the schedule trying to figure out two or three tournaments in a row that I could play in. I’d anguish that the schedule was so terrible – you had to go from Boston to California to Dallas. I’d talk myself out of going, but then I’d feel guilty about it. It was the old war horse thing, feeling that you should be out there. To feel like you should be doing something that you’re not doing is a great way to waste the marvelous time that’s given us. So, during the last couple of years I’ve divorced myself from that and I really don’t think about the Tour as a part of me.”

IT HAS ALL changed now, of course. Eleven of those 13 tournaments that she won in 1963 no longer exist. Most of the players of that day have retired.

Sandra Haynie still plays the LPGA Tour and in 1982 was the second-leading money winner.

Kathy Whitworth continues to compete and on May 16, 1982, broke Mickey Wright’s record of 82 career victories by winning the Lady Michelob, in Roswell, Ga.

Marilynn Smith teaches golf at Brook Hollow Golf Club in Dallas, and makes limited tournament appearances.

Louise Suggs lives in Delray Beach, Fla., and teaches golf there and at Sea Island.

Glen Lakes Country Club in Dallas, where Mickey won her third tournament of her record-tying four in a row, is now an exclusive housing development. There is no golf course.

At her home in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Mickey Wright has busied herself with the stock market until it has become almost a passion. She charts the progress of about 100 stocks, an exercise that suits her analytical mind. She gardens a bit, and she cooks often, which she loves. She stays busy.

But each morning, her alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and for a few minutes she lies in bed thinking about the golf swing. It has been her first thought each morning for 35 years, a habit she has not tried to break. Her thoughts dart in and around the motions of the swing, its patterns and rhythms and vagaries and form.

She does not think of it in the singular possessive, never as a thing belonging uniquely to her; it is simply the swing, a feat of ultimate precision that she mastered more than any woman before or since.

When the temptation becomes too strong, which happens about five mornings each week, Mickey takes a club and a couple of balls and plays nine holes for the sheer physical pleasure of swinging a club.

Her shots still have a high and soaring power and the swing has such beauty – and the times were so golden ….

So, the mournful little trail of letters follows the Tour around the country, and the golf course, that most peaceful of all temptations, waits quietly. It is the friendly foe at rest, the land itself like a living thing, waiting, listening silently and patiently for the steps of one whom it has favored most.

With luck, it could be a clean piney autumn morning, crisply cool, the sort of morning Mickey Wright loves best.

Mickey Wright thinks of it simply as The Swing, and it remains a part of her today when she plays her course in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (USGA Museum)

Mickey Wright became a dominant figure early in her professional career. She won her first United States Women's Open Championship by five strokes in 1958 at the Forest Lake Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (USGA Museum)