Mickey Wright in 1957 at Augusta Country Club.
My Shot: Mickey Wright

We Finally Got Mickey Wright!

The greatest female golfer of all time has rarely spoken at length since her mysterious retirement in 1973, but at long last she opens up in a compelling conversationSeptember 21, 2017

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. For this, the 111th edition of My Shot, we present the one and only—the best there ever was—Mickey Wright. —Guy Yocom


I'M IN GREAT SHAPE FOR 82. I had a couple of surgeries earlier this year I don't care to advertise, but I'm recovering nicely. So well, in fact, that I went out on my back porch yesterday and hit five wedge shots out to a fairway of the course I live on. I went out and picked up the balls, like I always do. It might not sound like much, but these Florida summers are no joke. How many 82-year-old women do you know who have been out hitting balls in 95-degree weather?

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 high-heels at cocktail parties. I don't count those.

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YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD OF LUCY LI, the girl who at age 11 played so well at the 2014 U.S. 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 14 now and still a tiny thing, not much over 100 pounds. Obviously she wants to hit the ball farther. 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.

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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.

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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 practicing 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 follow-through.

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.

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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 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.

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WHEN I WAS 12, I began taking part in clinics put on by a pro named Fred Sherman at Mission Valley 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.

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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.

‘In the 1960s, several of us started shooting films of our golf swings. I never was satisfied with what I saw.’

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.

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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.

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AFTER I BEAT BARBARA MCINTIRE in the final of the 1952 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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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."

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IN 1954, while still an amateur, I was paired the final 36 holes of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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MY EARLY YEARS ON TOUR, we traveled 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, Fla., 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.

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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.

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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 48 degrees, and the wind was blowing 20 miles per hour, just difficult as you can imagine. Long irons were always the strength of my 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.

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I LOVED THE CHALLENGE of hitting long irons, but my favorite club was my 6-iron. Most players have a favorite 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 up at the USGA Museum now, on display with its sisters.

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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.

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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 marvelous 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.

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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.

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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 honor code. It was so different from my experience in golf, too, where honor 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.

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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.

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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.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Wright winning the Grossinger Open in New York in 1960.

IN THE YEARS since I left the tour, my favorite 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 U.S. 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.

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IN THE 1960S, 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 practicing what he tells you is quite enough.

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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 years the LPGA Tour fought 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 recognizing 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 U.S. 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 another sport, they wouldn't have had the opportunity to show what fine young people they are.

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I WATCHED A LOT OF THE RECENT U.S. WOMEN'S AMATEUR. It was 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.

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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 to 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.

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THERE'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.


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