There are legends in every sport. Then there are those who walk away on top, who leave “what-ifs” and “can you imagines” on the table like some half-eaten delicacy they were too busy moving on with their lives to finish.
Such was the case with Mickey Wright, who died on Monday, having turned 85 three days before.
“We are deeply saddened to learn about the passing of Mickey Wright,” said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan. “We lost a legend, but we may also have lost the best swing in golf history today. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.”
… Wright is golf’s Sandy Koufax, an athlete who reached the mountaintop and called it quits, leaving behind nothing but grainy 8 mm footage to be studied like the Zapruder film, along with tales from those who were there …
Born on Valentine’s Day 1935 in San Diego, Mary Kathryn Wright took up the game as a toddler and began showing spark at age 11 when she took her first golf lesson at La Jolla Country Club. She became a USGA champion at age 17, winning the 1952 U.S. Girls’ Junior, defeating Barbara McIntyre, 1 up, at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Two summers later, while studying at Stanford University, Wright finished fourth at the U.S. Women’s Open as an amateur, finished runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and won the World Amateur. It was the first time she thought she could compete with the best.
She did better than that. After turning pro and joining the LPGA in 1955, just five years after its creation, Wright proved to be something different. From 1956 through 1973, 17 short years, Wright won 82 LPGA Tour events including 13 major championships. To put that into perspective, Tiger Woods has won 82 PGA Tour events and 15 major championships. But it’s taken him 24 years to do it. By the time Wright was the age Woods is now, she had been retired from full-time competition for a decade.
She won the Vare Trophy for low stroke average five times, won the money title four times and was the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year twice. She also was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Women’s Golf, a forerunner of the LPGA Hall of Fame, in 1964 when she was 29 years old. (She was one of six inaugural LPGA Hall of Fame inductees three years later.) In 1969, at 34, she walked away from a full-time schedule. Other than Bobby Jones, who retired at 28, no champion won more and walked away sooner than Mickey Wright.
In short, Wright is golf’s Sandy Koufax, an athlete who reached the mountaintop and called it quits, leaving behind nothing but grainy 8 mm footage to be studied like the Zapruder film, along with tales from those who were there, told to rapt audiences who gather like schoolchildren to hear about the woman Ben Hogan said “had the finest golf swing I ever saw.”
“I was paired with her the first time when I was 18,” Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said. “Clearly, the way she played golf was pretty intimidating. But she was always really nice to me. I looked forward to seeing her, for sure.
“She was an extraordinary player. She called herself a perfectionist, but it was more than that. She was the kind of perfectionist who cared more about doing it well than she did about winning. Everybody knew that Mickey was intelligent. She was certainly intelligent enough to have accomplished anything she wanted.
“One of the things that was so extraordinary at that time given the equipment we had was that Mickey could hit the ball very, very high, and was a great long-iron player. She was a great driver of the golf ball, but she separated herself in women’s golf the way (Jack) Nicklaus separated himself in men’s golf, with the long irons.
“I don’t think anyone was like her then and no one is like her today. No one is really playing the long (2- and 3-irons) today and hitting the ball high isn’t that big a challenge like it was in the ’50s and ’60s. She was long at a time when no one knew long. She carried the ball farther than most people thought about. (Her swing) would have probably lasted well into the 1980s if she had kept playing.”
There were some injuries, foot problems that nagged at her, and the weight of accomplishing so much at such an early age. So, she walked away, returning only on a rare occasion, as she did when she won the 1973 Colgate Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle. But other than that, Wright sightings were rare. Like Koufax, she never was a recluse, and never anything but kind and personable in all interactions. But she didn’t seek the spotlight after calling it a career. That strength of character enhanced her mystique even more.
“Mickey was truly a special person,” said Charlie Mechem, LPGA commissioner from 1991 to 1995. “She had class, she had elegance and she had unbelievable talent.
“When I was (LPGA) commissioner, we put together a senior team event (in Tallahassee, Fla.). Mickey and Kathy Whitworth played together. She had not played in public in many, many years. We started the seniors ahead of the regular tour players and I told my wife, ‘Mickey tees off at 8 o’clock and I bet she’ll be on the range about 7:15. I’ve never seen her hit a shot. Let’s go to the range and see if we can watch her.’
“Well, we got there about 7:15 and there must have been 50 tour players already there just to see her swing the golf club. It was everything I had ever heard, an amazing golf swing and an amazing talent. And she was a dear friend. I will miss her terribly.”
The game will miss her as well – as will all of sports, in which the best rarely walk away on top.
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