In my many years writing about golf I’ve had the good fortune of face-to-face interviews with a lot of legends. Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold, Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Louise Suggs, Kathy Whitworth, Betsy Rawls, Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork, Nancy Lopez and more. My regret is not being able to sit down with either Ben Hogan or Mickey Wright.
But very recently I became pen pals with Ms. Wright, a wonderful bit of fate that took on even more meaning today when I learned she had died of a heart attack at the age of 85. Wright, who won 82 LPGA tournaments, including 13 majors – four of those the U.S. Women’s Open – had what Hogan said was the best swing he ever saw. That’s a good enough endorsement for me.
She, along with Whitworth – who won a record 88 times – formed in the 1960s golf’s greatest rivalry. From 1961 through 1968, one of them was the leading money winner each year and from 1960 through 1967, one of them captured the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average.
Ms. Wright, who worked tirelessly to maintain the existence of the LPGA in the 1950s and ‘60s, both by serving as tour president and by playing as many as three dozen events a year in order to please sponsors, was famously a recluse. That was in part why she retired at the age of 34 – exhausted by her grueling efforts to grow the LPGA – and why she very rarely appeared in public in her later years.
Getting hold of Ms. Wright was a hit-and-miss proposition. If she happened to pick up the phone, she’d talk. But there was no chance she’d return a message. When she received the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor of the USGA, and the Hall of Fame honor by the PGA of America, she’d choose not to appear at the ceremony. Ms. Wright was content letting her record speak for itself.
Late last year, LPGA.com was conducting a fan vote to determine the player of the decade that just ended and I was asked to write a story in which Annika Sorenstam, Whitworth and Wright would weigh in on their pick. I knew I could get interviews with Whitworth and Sorenstam but Wright was another matter.
Fortunately, Mickey had discovered that email allowed her contact with the outside world while still maintaining her privacy and my friend, LPGA co-founder Shirley Spork, had Wright’s email address.
With a bit of hope in my heart, I dashed off an email to Mickey and, because I was not certain she knew who I was, I included the video tribute to her I had done for the PGA of America when she was inducted into its Hall of Fame.
A few days later, my heart skipped a beat when I saw tucked in my inbox the words “Mary Kathryn Wright.” When I read the words that followed, my eyes misted over as I cherished every syllable.
Thank you for your very nice letter, and for including the video of the PGA Hall of Fame induction.
I feel as if I know you from reading your work over the years, and from seeing and hearing you on the Golf Channel. Needless to say, I'm a fan. The LPGA is lucky to have you.
By the way, one of my few regrets in golf, was not being able to attend the induction in person. Belatedly, thank you for the glowing introduction.
Merry Christmas to you and your family, and a healthy 2020 filled with lots of one putts.
About a month later I was asked by the USGA to write a story on the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Women’s Open and again I reached out to Mickey because she and Betsy Rawls are the only four-time winners.
Again she answered, saying those four wins were “the most important statistic in my resume.” She added: “The only other statistic that means almost as much was winning 44 tournaments in 4 years,” which is what she did from 1961 through 1964.
About the third time I asked Mickey for help with a story, I apologized and promised I would not make bothering her a habit. But she was, as always, gracious and, as always, an advocate for the LPGA, women’s golf and the game of golf. This is how she answered:
Thanks for letting me be a part of your writing, Ron.
Never hesitate to ask, but won't always have something to say.
Last Friday – on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14 – I sent Mickey birthday wishes. I was a little surprised I did not hear back. Her responses were always prompt. Then I found out why. In a hospital in Florida, a good woman who was a great golfer passed away.
When Mickey Wright was the centerpiece of the LPGA she liked to say: “Every star needs a good chorus line.” That says everything about her remarkable being. Mickey was a star who lifted up the players around her and the tour they all belong to. The LPGA and golf has lost a woman who oozed the Wright stuff.