As Mickey Wright Turns 80, Her Legend Still Glows Bright
Mickey Wright hasn't had a scorecard in her pocket in 20 years, but it doesn't seem that long. "The years come off faster as you get older," said Wright, who turns 80 on Valentine's Day.
It was April 30, 1995, the final round in the Sprint Senior Challenge, a 36-hole tournament for a dozen LPGA legends in Daytona Beach, Florida. Wright, who had 13 major victories among her 82 titles, teed off at 7:02 a.m. with Carol Mann.
Before their own starting times, current players populated the gallery to study Wright's swing, the best Ben Hogan said he ever saw, still fluid and strong.
"I watched her from afar," Hall of Famer Juli Inkster said. "Her swing was awesome, like butter, just so smooth and effortless. Plus, the power it had."
Wright cared about golf the way a preacher cares about sin. In the forenoon at LPGA International that Sunday 20 springs ago, after hitting her tee shot on the par-5 18th hole into the left rough, she made one more swing that mattered dearly.
"I think about the last shot I hit," Wright said over the phone from her Florida home. "My drive ended up on a sidehill lie near the water. My caddie handed me a wedge, and I said to let me have a 4-iron. The ball is way up above me, and I hit it on the green. Two-putt birdie. It was one of the best shots I hit playing professional golf. I thought, 'That is one good way to quit.'"
I've had the privilege of playing with Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and all of them. ... But nobody hit it like Mickey, just nobody.Kathy Whitworth
It wasn't the first time Wright stepped away from the sport she played so well. Wright was 34 in 1969 when she played her final full season, the same age as another phenomenal ball-striker, Byron Nelson, had been when he retired in 1946. After winning 44 tournaments from 1961 through 1964 -- a four-year run of success better than any other male or female golfer has had -- she was weary of the grind, the burden of being the face of the LPGA, nervous about flying and suffering from foot problems.
"She was the best I've ever seen, man or woman," said Kathy Whitworth, whose 88 career victories are the most on the LPGA or PGA tours. "I've had the privilege of playing with Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and all of them. And some of our ladies had wonderful golf swings. But nobody hit it like Mickey, just nobody. She had 82 wins, but she would have won over 100 with no trouble if she had stayed on tour."
But when it comes to Wright, what might have been is trumped by what was.
Earlier this year during the broadcast of a PGA Tour event, announcers made a big deal that a young player was carrying a 2-iron. "I'm surprised they even knew what it was," Wright said of a club largely replaced by easier-to-hit hybrids. She relished the challenge of hitting a long iron well.
"A 2-iron to a well-trapped green -- that was hard to beat," Wright said. "That feeling when you catch it just dead-solid center with a straight-faced club and send it high. There is nothing quite like it."
Wright doesn't watch as much professional golf on television as she once did, unenthused as she is with what is often demanded (or not) of today's elite. "Driver and a wedge, driver and wedge. It gets a little old," she said. "It does not seem that interesting to me anymore. I like Martin Kaymer. Who else gets my attention? The guy with the great build who took his pants off and went in the water -- Henrik Stenson, that's right. I like him. Oh, I'll tell you somebody who impresses me: Lucy Li."
Li, the 12-year-old Californian who qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women's Open at the record age of 11 and impressed with her performance at Pinehurst No. 2 Course, has become more than an image on Wright's TV and score on her computer.
"She got my email address from somebody at the USGA and we've been corresponding some for about six months now," Wright said. "She had read my instruction book quite a few times, and she had her aunt take some video of her swing and send it to me. I made a couple of comments which she seemed to take to. I mentioned a couple of technical points, but the main thing was just don't get messed up with too much instruction and keep doing what you're doing."
Wright has embraced her email buddy, passing along something Jack Burke Jr. told her when she was a kid: "Once you learn to hit the ball high, there is only one thing left to do, and that's hit it higher."
Although the Hall of Famer offered a helping hand to younger players when she was on tour, Wright said in retirement golfers have been reluctant to seek her knowledge. "Not ever," she said. "As my friend says, this is the Mayflower. I think today's players think they know everything, but everybody can always learn a little more."
Li and Wright "talk the same language" despite the nearly 70 years' difference in their ages. "It tickles me to death," Wright said. "She is one bright little kid with a lot of maturity, and her mother is just a delight. I just can't wait to see Lucy grow up enough to get out there and play a lot."
Although Wright won the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship at age 17, she is struck by what the current wave of teenage female golfers, led by Lydia Ko, is accomplishing.
"It is mind boggling," Wright said. "They are so mature, think so well, have such emotional control. They're not child-like. It's like they were raised in another world."
Wright, who overcame breast cancer a decade ago -- "I had a good surgeon, and everything's terrific, knock on wood" -- has lived a quiet life contentedly away from the spotlight for a long time. "But it is absolutely incorrect to think that I am a recluse," she told Golf World in 2000. "The people who know me know that's incorrect. I don't hide out, put on sunglasses and pull a cap down when I go out or anything like that. I just like life simple."
She stayed at home when the LPGA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2000 and in 2012, when the United States Golf Association Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey, opened the Mickey Wright Room to showcase her career. The four-time U.S. Women's Open champion was the first woman golfer to be honored with a gallery in her name there.
"It was the thrill of my life to get that honor," Wright said, "but I did not get up there. Some friends went up and took some pictures for me. I love the USGA. It really meant a lot, but the thought of driving through Washington, D.C., one more time was really more than I wanted to do."
Contemporaries and friends such as Whitworth and Betsy Rawls, the 86-year-old, 55-time LPGA winner, still enjoy getting out on the course. Wright played her last holes, three of them, five years ago with friends at her golf course community who were moving away.
"It's not much fun to not play well," Wright said. "It's too bad I can't just go out and enjoy playing, shooting 85 or whatever. I just can't do that. Betsy plays two or three times a week and just loves it. It wouldn't be enough for me. I'm the loser for that attitude."
Whitworth enjoys a long phone call every month to stay in touch with Wright, whom she looked up to even as she was trying to defeat her. "This woman, well, you just knew you were looking at somebody really, really special," Whitworth said. "Special people come along every now and then, and all you can do is admire and enjoy it."
The pleasure that others got from watching Wright swing a club was surpassed by the joy it gave her. "I swung the club," she said. "That's it. The key word is swing, not turn. Not ground your feet like they were in cement so your body doesn't move. That's not a swing to me."
Wright still swings a club every now and then, hitting off a mat in her yard with some of the new equipment technology provided by Wilson, her longtime clubmaker. "I hit a few balls off my back porch," she said. "I'm about to be 80 years old, and I can hit a 7-iron about 145 yards, almost as far as I did when I was 20. I think they sent me some hot golf balls. I feel like I'm cheating. It's not the same game, really."
Of course, it is not the same swing that wowed a couple of generations, either. When Wright connects just so, though, a well-struck iron climbs and clears some trees to a nearby fairway. It doesn't happen every swing, but it happens. There is satisfaction for Wright in where the shot lands, and, these many years since she was a girl in California learning what it was like to hit a ball on the button, delight in how it feels.