MY SHOT: MICKEY WRIGHT

A COM­PELLING CON­VER­SA­TION WITH A TRUE GOLF GE­NIUS

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents -

A com­pelling con­ver­sa­tion with a true golf ge­nius. With Guy Yo­com

MICKEY WRIGHT IS WITH­OUT QUES­TION THE GREAT­EST FE­MALE PLAYER OF ALL TIME, com­pil­ing a stag­ger­ing 82 LPGA vic­to­ries, in­clud­ing 13 ma­jor cham­pi­onships. Her swing, an aes­thetic and technical mir­a­cle, was as­sessed by Ben Ho­gan as the best ever. By 1969, at age 34, she had at­tained al­most myth­i­cal sta­tus.Then, just like that, she was gone. She re­tired, mys­te­ri­ously, play­ing spo­rad­i­cally un­til 1973, be­fore re­ced­ing to her Florida home and a pri­vate life of her de­sign. Since that time, Wright has spo­ken oc­ca­sion­ally, but never at length. No golfer, Ho­gan in­cluded, has ever left us want­ing more for in­sight into the player’s thoughts and ex­pe­ri­ences. On this oc­ca­sion, she let us in. In con­ver­sa­tion, Mickey speaks with an easy pre­ci­sion, her voice strong and alert. It’s a two-way deal – she asks ques­tions, is­sues funny re­join­ders to your an­swers, points out ironies. Her takes on oth­ers are gen­er­ous, her self-as­sess­ments mod­est. She is fiercely pro golf and, not sur­pris­ingly, a tra­di­tion­al­ist. She is a de­light. – GUY YO­COM

i’m in great shape for 83. I had a cou­ple of surg­eries last year I don’t care to ad­ver­tise, but I’ve re­cov­ered nicely. So well, in fact, that I go out on my back porch and hit wedge shots to a fair­way of the course I live on. I picked up the balls, like I al­ways do. It might not sound like much, but Florida sum­mers are no joke. How many women my age do you know who have been out hit­ting balls in 35C weather? ● ●●

i still love swing­ing a golf club more than just about any­thing. For years after my last com­pet­i­tive ap­pear­ance in 1995, I’d hit balls from my porch.When the USGA Mu­seum put to­gether the Mickey Wright Room in 2011 and needed a few me­men­tos, I sent, among other things, the lit­tle swatch of syn­thetic turf. I hit balls off it one last time and fig­ured that was it.Then some good friends of mine in In­di­ana heard about it and sent me a brand-new prac­tice mat.You know how it works: Put out a mat, some balls and a club in front of a golfer, and the temp­ta­tion to use them is go­ing to be too much. So I keep my hand in, five or six balls at a time. Just enough to re­main a “golfer.” ● ●●

not too long ago, the nice peo­ple at Wil­son Sport­ing Goods sent me a new set of irons. It had been awhile since I’d seen a new set, and what a shock it was.The shafts to­day are so much longer, the lofts so much stronger than I’m ac­cus­tomed to. I felt I could barely han­dle them. Swing­ing them feels al­most like a dif­fer­ent game, and not nec­es­sar­ily an eas­ier one. So I stick with my old gap wedge with a Wil­son Fat Shaft that is at least 20 years old. I carry the ball 100 yards, maybe 110. Not much dif­fer­ent than I used to, re­ally. ● ●●

i’m al­ways work­ing on some­thing. Setup, ball po­si­tion, weight dis­tri­bu­tion, mainly. The fun­da­men­tals. How far I stand from the ball, the first moves of the take­away.There never was a time in my life when I wasn’t try­ing to work on some­thing. To me, that was the whole point.That’s where the joy comes from, in iden­ti­fy­ing prob­lems and then fix­ing them. I might very well be bet­ter at some­thing next year than I am right now. ● ●●

i’ve been try­ing the new swing ideas I keep hear­ing about, things I see play­ers do­ing on TV.They leave me cold, to be hon­est. I watch the way play­ers keep their feet planted, their backs per­fectly straight and rigid with their lower bod­ies hardly mov­ing at all, and just know they’re go­ing to get hurt.They look overly “lever­aged,” not the per­fect word per­haps, but one all those an­gles bring to mind. It’s just the op­po­site of how I learned, which is the swing hap­pen­ing from the ground up. I guess I just don’t un­der­stand the mod­ern way. One thing’s for sure, I see an aw­ful lot of play­ers wear­ing med­i­cal tape. Hands, arms, legs, back, ev­ery­where.That can’t be a good sign. ●●●

i had one golf-re­lated in­jury my whole ca­reer, a gan­glion cyst in my left wrist. I did sprain my an­kle twice, both times while wear­ing high­heels at cock­tail par­ties. I don’t count those.

●●● you’ve prob­a­bly heard of Lucy Li, the girl who at age 11 played so well at the 2014 US Women’s Open. We struck up a friend­ship via email, which is pretty neat con­sid­er­ing I could be her great-great-grand­mother. It goes to show, the lan­guage of golf never changes. Lucy is 15 now and still a tiny thing, about 45kg. Ob­vi­ously she wants to hit the ball fur­ther. I’ve told Lucy to hang in there, that she hasn’t stopped grow­ing and that more dis­tance will come with time. I’ve sug­gested she turn her shoul­ders as far as they’ll go and to turn her hips, too, and for heaven’s sake, let that left heel come off the ground. But the main thing I’ve told her is to avoid lift­ing weights and to sim­ply hit a lot of balls. There is no sub­sti­tute for be­ing “golf strong,” de­vel­op­ing the mus­cles you ac­tu­ally use in the swing. And she’ll de­velop mus­cle mem­ory, which is vi­tal to a young player.

●●●

my first teacher was a man named Johnny Bel­lante. The first les­son at La Jolla Coun­try Club, he broke off the limb of a eu­ca­lyp­tus tree and handed it to me.“I want you to make this branch sing,” he said.To make a loud noise when I swished the branch through the air, I had to ap­ply as much speed as I could, smooth but force­ful. What a won­der­ful first les­son that was. It taught me the sen­sa­tion of swing­ing through the ball, not at it. ● ●●

the most in­flu­en­tial teacher, how­ever, was Harry Pressler. He was known through­out Cal­i­for­nia as the finest teacher of fe­male play­ers there was. Ev­ery Satur­day, my mother would drive me 2½ hours up to San Gabriel Coun­try Club to see him for a 30-minute les­son. My swing, which peo­ple have praised, re­ally is Harry’s swing. On the wall of his of­fice he had a pho­to­graph of Ben Ho­gan prac­tis­ing with a belt around his thighs and a band around his up­per arms, a re­minder to keep them as close to­gether dur­ing the swing as pos­si­ble. For all the talk about the old way be­ing about in­di­vid­ual styles, Harry was adamant that there was one good swing. Club square go­ing back. Right hand un­der the shaft in the “tray” po­si­tion at the top, the club at a 45-de­gree an­gle. Club­face square half­way down, at im­pact and into the fol­lowthrough. He would phys­i­cally move me into these po­si­tions so I could train my mus­cles to flow into them nat­u­rally. My swing might have had style in terms of rhythm and tempo, but in truth it was some­what man­u­fac­tured. But it was a swing for a life­time, and boy, did it work. ● ●●

Many years later, I was on the range at Austin Coun­try Club with Betsy Rawls when Har­vey Penick came by to watch. Har­vey was never my teacher, but since I was there hit­ting balls, he of­fered some help. He handed me a home-made teach­ing de­vice, a heavy metal ball welded to the end of a chain. It was like a con­vict’s ball and chain, ex­cept it had a grip on it. He said it would im­prove my rhythm. “Just make your nor­mal swing,” he said. I guess I swung it like I did that eu­ca­lyp­tus branch, be­cause the ball broke off

‘IN THE 1960S, SEV­ERAL OF US STARTED SHOOT­ING FILMS OF OUR GOLF SWINGS. I NEVER WAS SAT­IS­FIED WITH WHAT I SAW.’

the chain and flew down the range. If it had hit some­body, it surely would have killed them. I looked over at Har­vey, and his mouth was wide open.“I don’t think this will work for you,” he said.

●●●

when i was 12, I be­gan tak­ing part in clin­ics put on by a pro named Fred Sher­man at Mis­sionVal­ley Coun­try Club in San Diego.They were at night, and a lot of peo­ple came out to watch.The range was lit by these enor­mous lights in the dis­tance, sim­i­lar to a base­ball sta­dium.At the height of the evening, Fred would bring me for­ward to demon­strate. “Mickey, show the peo­ple how you can make the ball dis­ap­pear,” he’d say, and I would drive the ball so it went out of sight, still climb­ing as it passed be­yond the lights. Over the years, when I needed a big drive, I’d whis­per to my­self, Make it dis­ap­pear. ●●●

when i drove the ball through those lights, the crowd would go, “Ooh.” I found, to my sur­prise, that I liked the at­ten­tion.The best golfers, I be­lieve, have a lit­tle bit of ham in them, a lit­tle show-off. Even shy golfers have a “just watch what I can do” part of their makeup that is a huge as­set to them. The de­sire to em­brace the spotlight, to put your tal­ent on dis­play and show peo­ple you can do this one thing re­ally, re­ally well, is a gift. I can’t think of a re­ally good pro who hasn’t had that. ●●●

i once played an ex­hi­bi­tion with the late Mickey Rooney, who when I was a kid was a huge Hol­ly­wood star. He was my part­ner, and I opened the show with a good drive down the mid­dle. Nice ap­plause from the gallery. Now it was his turn, and he went through an elab­o­rate se­ries of an­tics – wag­gles, stretches, deep breaths and so on – that lasted a good 30 sec­onds.The crowd was silent. Fi­nally he took the club back.When he got to the top he froze mo­men­tar­ily, then fell over like a statue. Didn’t break his fall or any­thing, just tipped over like a tree, hit­ting the ground with a thud.A planned prat­fall, done only the way those old pros could do it.The crowd was al­most help­less with laugh­ter.

●●●

save for the women's Western Open, there was pre­cious lit­tle match play in women’s pro golf back then, and I was glad for it. I al­ways saw medal play as a bet­ter test. I never could rec­on­cile how some­one could score a cou­ple of 8s and still be de­clared the win­ner. But that’s just me.

●●●

after i beat Bar­bara McIn­tire in the fi­nal of the 1952 US Girls’ Ju­nior, I felt as sorry for her as I was happy for my­self. She was a friend, and I knew win­ning would have meant so much to her. Later, I won the 1962 Title­hold­ers and ’64 US Women’s Opens in play­offs, beat­ing the same woman – Ruth Jessen – both times. Poor Ruthie had played so well, too.All these years later, their losses still bother me. I sup­pose there are play­ers who don’t mind see­ing their op­po­nents suf­fer. But I was never that way. ●●●

But i did have a play­ful edge. When I played with Louise Suggs, I al­ways made a point of telling her after the round how much I en­joyed watch­ing her. She had such a beau­ti­ful swing. I’d say,“Thank you for help­ing me to­day, Louise.” She’d say,“What are you talk­ing about? I didn’t help you.” I’d say,“Oh, yes you did.Your swing re­ally helped my rhythm.” She’d laugh, “Well, I’m sorry about that.”

●●●

in 1954, while still an ama­teur, I was paired the fi­nal 36 holes of the US Women’s Open with Babe Za­harias. I was 19 and scared out of my boots. Can you imag­ine sud­denly com­pet­ing against the great­est ath­lete of all time? Babe was larger than life, al­most like some­thing from another planet. She was com­ing back from surgery a year ear­lier for colon can­cer but still was phe­nom­e­nally ath­letic. Her arms and legs had a mus­cu­lar qual­ity I had never seen be­fore. She was a show­man and com­pletely owned the gal­leries. On one hole she called her hus­band, Ge­orge, over to shield her while she re­moved her gir­dle. I was naive and blushed when she did that, but Babe thought noth­ing of it. She showed it to the gallery and said,“Just watch me hit it now.” She was rough and tum­ble, com­pet­i­tive, and kind. And my, could she play. She’s of­ten re­mem­bered as a long hit­ter, and maybe it was true be­fore I saw her, but at that US Open it was her short game that stood out. She won that cham­pi­onship by 12 strokes. I fin­ished tied for fourth, 17 strokes back. It seems like such a priv­i­lege to have seen her play close-up. Only two years later, she was gone. ● ●● my early years on tour, we trav­elled to tour­na­ments by car, a car­a­van of us go­ing from one city to the next. It’s of­ten talked about as a hard life, but I never saw it that way at all.We all had Cadil­lacs, big, re­ally com­fort­able cars.There were fewer automobiles on the road, no con­ges­tion. I found it a joy. It gave you time to re­lax, think and see this beau­ti­ful coun­try. We lis­tened to the ra­dio a lot, coun­try mu­sic mostly, but we liked to find sta­tions that played a lot of Elvis Pres­ley. We all were crazy for him. In 1956, in St Peters­burg, Florida, I fi­nally got to see him per­form.This was a big deal for me. I was 21, re­mem­ber, and he was the hottest thing in Amer­ica.There were a lot of girls in the crowd, and I be­haved just like the rest of them, squeal­ing and car­ry­ing on. ●●●

we play­ers were close, but I wouldn’t liken it to that movie “A League of Their Own.” It didn’t have that sorority, team-like feel. Keep in mind, we were in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors. Golf is the ul­ti­mate in­di­vid­ual game.There were kind­nesses ev­ery­where, from shar­ing putting tips to lend­ing ad­vice and en­cour­age­ment. But to say we felt like fam­ily is a lit­tle much.That’s a whole dif­fer­ent dy­namic.

●●●

I think ath­letes have a mo­ment, a tiny lit­tle win­dow, where they are at their ab­so­lute peak. A high-water mark of their skill and abil­ity to ex­e­cute. For me, it would be the 16th hole, fi­nal round of the 1957 Sea Is­land Open. I had a nar­row lead and faced a 2-iron shot to a green with a huge, yawn­ing bunker. It was cold, and the wind was blow­ing, just dif­fi­cult as you can imag­ine. Long irons were al­ways the strength of my

‘I NEVER LIKED PLAY­ING FOR MONEY IN CA­SUAL GAMES . . . . I AL­WAYS THOUGHT THE GAME WAS IN­TER­EST­ING ENOUGH TO STAND ON ITS OWN.’

game, and that shot, which I hit to 10 feet, gave me goose bumps. It had a sur­real qual­ity to it. It came off ex­actly how I saw it in my mind’s eye, the qual­ity of the con­tact and the ball flight, with the per­fect tra­jec­tory and cur­va­ture, as good as it got for me. I won the tour­na­ment, and though it was far from my great­est vic­tory, I spent the rest of my ca­reer try­ing to du­pli­cate the feel of that shot. ● ●●

i loved the chal­lenge of hit­ting long irons, but my favourite club was my 6-iron. Most play­ers have a favourite club, one that looks more invit­ing than the rest when you set it be­hind the ball.To me it was the 6-iron from my set of Wil­son Staff Dy­napower irons, 1963 model. Long after I re­tired, I loved tak­ing the club out to a short stretch of holes be­hind my house. It was the per­fect club, dis­tance-wise, for mak­ing par, hit­ting both my tee shots and ap­proaches with that one club.The 5-iron was too much, the 7-iron not enough. One day, it broke.The head flew off, and for some rea­son it couldn’t be re­paired.That was a sad day. It’s at the USGA Mu­seum now, on dis­play with its sis­ters. ● ●●

at my best I would go into what I called a “fog.” I never thought of it as the “zone” you hear about to­day, though maybe it was some­thing like that. It was a men­tal state where I could con­cen­trate re­ally well and play with a greater con­fi­dence than usual. I had it when I shot 62 at Hunt­ing Creek in Louisville in 1964. It was elu­sive, but that’s when I played my best. ● ●●

i was only 34 when I stepped away from play­ing full time in 1969. In 1960, shortly after I moved to Dallas, I was in­vited by Earl Ste­wart to play out of Oak Cliff Coun­try Club, make it my home base. Earl was a mar­vel­lous teacher and a fan­tas­tic player who to my knowl­edge is the last full-time club pro to win a PGA Tour event on his home course. I played a lot of golf with Earl.We would play for 50 cents in our matches just to have some­thing rid­ing on them, and I don’t know that I ever beat him, even with him hit­ting a 2-iron off the tees and me a driver. I pleaded with Earl to talk to me about my swing. He stead­fastly re­fused. He said,“You have to play. It’s not about the swing, it’s about how you get around the golf course.” He was filled with all kinds of wis­dom, things like tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for each swing and how to deal with bad shots and good. I re­spected Earl so much. I wanted to please him. ● ●●

in 1961, i won 10 lpga tour­na­ments. I re­turned to Oak Cliff hop­ing for some ap­proval from Earl. He said, “That’s pretty good, but you should win ev­ery tour­na­ment.” I thought he had to be jok­ing but re­dou­bled my ef­forts any­way. In 1962, I won 10 tour­na­ments, and in 1963, I won 13. Each time I got home, Earl said,“Not good enough.You should win ev­ery time.” Long story short, in a four-year pe­riod begin­ning in 1961, I won 44 tour­na­ments, in­clud­ing eight ma­jor cham­pi­onships. I also served as pres­i­dent of the LPGA for two years dur­ing that stretch, at­tend­ing ev­ery cock­tail party and Ro­tary Club event.The sum of try­ing to meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of Earl, the LPGA, my fa­ther and the pub­lic ex­hausted me phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally. I de­vel­oped an ul­cer and had all kinds of anx­i­ety. It wasn’t the years, it was the mileage. ● ●●

i kept on, but in 1969, with my leg in a cast after one of those sprained an­kles, I stepped away from golf com­pletely. I en­rolled at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity, fig­ur­ing I’d discover a way to put my brains to work. Col­lege, I quickly learned, had changed rad­i­cally from what I re­called from my ex­pe­ri­ence at Stan­ford, where I’d gone for a year be­fore turn­ing pro in 1954. There was a lot of cheat­ing, which was com­pletely dif­fer­ent than at Stan­ford, where every­body obeyed the hon­our code. It was so dif­fer­ent from my ex­pe­ri­ence in golf, too, where hon­our and self-polic­ing was the norm. I also couldn’t get my head around a sub­ject called “new math.” I got an A, but the ef­fort it took was fright­ful.All it took was one quar­ter at SMU, and I knew I had to get back to what I knew best – be­ing a pro golfer. I kept play­ing semi-reg­u­larly un­til 1973. ●●●

those 50-cent games I played with Earl Ste­wart were kind of an aber­ra­tion. I never liked play­ing for money in ca­sual games. I’m no prude; I ab­so­lutely will bet on other things. But golf I thought was too pre­cious to bet on. It’s a holy thing to me. Bet­ting dirt­ies it a lit­tle. I al­ways thought the game was in­ter­est­ing enough to stand on its own. ●●●

the best pure woman golfer I ever saw was Patty Berg. She un­der­stood the game, mean­ing she had an un­canny knack for ex­act­ing the best score pos­si­ble. She was a clutch put­ter, a re­mark­able fair­way-wood player and the best sand player I ever saw. One shot in par­tic­u­lar is burned in my mind.At the 1955 Title­hold­ers Cham­pi­onship at Au­gusta Coun­try Club, Patty hit into a bunker on the 13th hole. She faced a 30-yard shot from a se­vere downs­lope, her lie in the sand not very good. I thought she was dead. She very quickly and de­ci­sively played it to within three inches of the hole. It was a breath­tak­ing shot even for a great pro, and I saw her play many like it. Patty’s skill is kind of lost to his­tory, but there’s been no one bet­ter.

●●●

in the years since I left the tour, my favourite swing to watch was Patty Shee­han’s. Beau­ti­ful rhythm, on plane and square at the top. Also, she swung through it beau­ti­fully. I’m not much of a note-writer, but after Patty won the US Women’s Open in 1994, I sent her a mes­sage telling her I thought she had the best swing of her era. I heard she ap­pre­ci­ated that. Of the play­ers out there now, I re­ally like the swings of the Korda girls, Jes­sica and Nelly. They’re both spe­cial. ● ●●

in the 60s, sev­eral of us started shoot­ing films of our golf swings. I never was sat­is­fied with what I saw.The ten­dency is to be crit­i­cal, to see things that aren’t per­fect and start fid­dling with them. It never ends, be­cause heaven knows we never get to per­fect. I think see­ing a good teacher and prac­tis­ing what he tells you is quite enough. ● ●●

what do i think of the new LPGA dress code? Well, the line be­tween pro­ject­ing fem­i­nin­ity and out­right sex is a thin one. If you look at the his­tory, in my early a per­cep­tion of mas­culin­ity. The play­ers made a con­scious ef­fort to be more fem­i­nine. Jan Stephen­son and Laura Baugh were re­ally good at that, be­cause while men no doubt saw them as sexy, they pri­mar­ily were just be­ing re­ally fem­i­nine.They were at­trac­tive, but the look was nat­u­ral more than forced. Some of the play­ers to­day seem to be forc­ing the sex­i­ness. I do think you want to make it look more like a golf tour­na­ment than a men’s club. So I’m for the dress code. I don’t think any­one will have trou­ble recog­nis­ing the play­ers as at­trac­tive women. ● ●●

my heart breaks for El­iz­a­beth Moon, the girl who raked away the short putt be­fore it was con­ceded at the US Girls’ Ju­nior. It was so un­for­tu­nate, and I know painful. I want her to know I’m think­ing of her.The rules can be se­vere, but what’s im­por­tant is the lovely way she took re­spon­si­bil­ity for her er­ror. I’m for her op­po­nent, the (Erica) Shep­herd girl, too. I want them both to take pride: Only in this game can such harsh out­comes re­flect well on the com­peti­tors. If it were

other sport, they wouldn’t have had the op­por­tu­nity to show what fine young peo­ple they are. ● ●● i watched the last us Women's Ama­teur at San Diego Coun­try Club, a tremen­dous course and a spe­cial one to me. On the par-4 18th hole, a Cal­i­for­nia girl, Ha­ley Moore, boomed a drive out there and had a wedge left to the green. At my best, I needed a 2-iron. The trou­ble with mod­ern equip­ment and dis­tance – and I don’t see any­one point­ing this out – is that it robs from the player’s ex­pe­ri­ence. With that 2-iron, I was pre­sented with strate­gic choices. Which way do I curve the ball? Do I hit it high or low? Should I maybe hit a fair­way wood? For Ha­ley, there re­ally was one op­tion: hit the wedge. So, though the game is in­ter­est­ing to watch and al­ways will be, it’s less cere­bral for the player. ● ●● when i see a young player stand­ing with her hand on her hip after miss­ing a putt, I feel like jump­ing through the TV screen and giv­ing her the talk­ing-to Betsy Rawls gave me shortly after I came on tour. I was an ex­cep­tional ball-striker al­ready, and it an­noyed me no end to get beaten by some­one who didn’t hit it as well but chipped and putted bet­ter. I had this ar­ro­gant at­ti­tude that if I hit it bet­ter I some­how de­served it more. After I’d com­plained for the umpteenth time to Betsy about this, she fi­nally had heard enough. First she re­minded me that the ba­sic premise is to get the ball into the hole in the fewest num­ber of strokes.A sim­ple fact, but one lost on a lot of good ball-strik­ers.Then she told me to start tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for ev­ery shot and stop feel­ing sorry for my­self.When the pity par­ties stopped, I im­me­di­ately started win­ning. I would have won some tour­na­ments, but I’m cer­tain the to­tal wouldn’t have reached 82. ● ●● ther's got to be golf in

heaven. I hope I get there and that it’s just me and my 2-iron. Or maybe a cou­ple of an­gels will be look­ing on. Ev­ery­thing will look like Sea Is­land Golf Club did in the old days, se­date and beau­ti­ful. I’ll be fac­ing that shot to a well-trapped green again, try­ing to du­pli­cate that shot from 1957. If it’s re­ally heaven, I’ll pull it off.

● ● ● in 1957 at au­gusta coun­try club.

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