Bill Wright, the first Black competitor to win a United States Golf Association event in an era when African-Americans were not welcome either in segregated country clubs or in the top amateur and professional ranks, died on Feb. 19 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.
His wife and only immediate survivor, Ceta (Smith) Wright, confirmed the death. She said he had a stroke in 2017 and had Alzheimer’s disease.
Wright was attending the Western Washington College of Education (now Western Washington University) in 1959 when he won the U.S.G.A. Amateur Public Links Championship in Denver.
After barely qualifying for match play, he had little trouble in the tournament. His skill on the greens led The Spokesman-Review of Spokane to call him a “slender putting wizard.”
Wright’s immediate reaction to being the first Black golfer to win a national championship was to hang up the phone on the reporter who had asked how that felt.
“I wasn’t mad,” he said in an interview with the U.S.G.A. in 2009. “I wanted to be Black. I wanted to be the winner. I wanted to be all those things.” But he was struck by how quickly his victory was viewed as one for his race. As he saw it, he said, “I was just playing golf.”
Wright’s victory was a singular moment for Black golfers at a time when the P.G.A. of America’s bylaws still had a “Caucasians-only” clause (which would be abolished in 1961).
A Black man did not win a PGA Tour event until 1964, when Pete Brown finished first at the Waco Turner Open in Texas. The next two African-American winners of U.S.G.A. tournaments were Alton Duhon (the 1982 U.S. Senior Amateur) and Tiger Woods (the 1991 to 1993 U.S. Junior Amateurs).
Victoria Nenno, the senior historian of the USGA Golf Museum and Library, said in an email that Wright’s victory “deserves recognition not just for the challenges he overcame as an African-American golfer, but for the manner in which he won — with skill, precision and, most importantly, sportsmanship.”
Winning the public links title earned Wright an exemption to play in the U.S. Amateur Championship later that year at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs. When the white golfers who were to join him for a practice round refused to play with him, Chick Evans, who had won the Open in 1920, invited him to join his group. That group included Jack Nicklaus, then 19 years old, who would win the event.
“I have never forgotten it,” Wright once said of Evans’s gesture in an interview for usga.com. “He came over and made it so I could enjoy the most aristocratic hotel. It was just amazing.”
William Alfred Wright was born on April 4, 1936, in Kansas City, Mo., and later moved with his family to Portland, Ore., and Seattle. His father, Bob, was a mail carrier and a skilled golfer. His mother, Madeline (Shipman) Wright, was a social worker who also golfed.
Wright began playing golf at 14; a year later, he was Seattle’s junior champion. He excelled in basketball and helped his high school team win a state title in 1954.
He graduated from Western Washington in 1960 and that year won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ individual golf championship. He also played in his first PGA Tour event in 1960, but learned how difficult it was to play a regular schedule without sponsors.
“There was really no visible hope for people of color to play professionally,” Wendell Haskins, a former director of diversity for the P.G.A. of America, said in a phone interview. “He showed all kinds of promise, but the opportunities for him were limited.”
Because he could not afford to play golf professionally full time, Wright taught sixth grade in Los Angeles for nine years, then owned a car dealership in Pasadena and was the teaching pro at the Lakes at El Segundo, a nine-hole municipal golf course, from 1995 to 2017.
According to the PGA Tour, Wright played in at least 17 tournaments from 1960 to 1974 — his best finish was a tie for 40th place — and in nine PGA Tour Champions events (tournaments for golfers at least 50 years old) from 1988 to 1995. He also competed in the 1966 U.S. Open — he didn’t make the cut — and five U.S. Senior Opens.
“He was a barrier breaker,” Ceta Wright said. “The sad part is that he hoped his success would open the doors for other Black golfers. But it really didn’t.”
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