Mickey Wright, Likely the Best of the Best
We knew that it was going to come some day, but I put it out of my head. Last week, we lost mickey Wright at the age of 85. Wright was an extremely important figure for me in the 50s and 60s, the two decades in which she was utterly dominant – and we’re talking early Woods years dominant.
I was like every other kid growing up in the 50s, with a long list of heroes. Why would Mickey Wright become so iconic to a young boy in an athletic pastime? First of all, golf in my family was not a male getaway. We all played, and played together, everyone in the family tree. Female and male golf for me was just golf, the greatest game played out of doors for much of the year. Secondly, even to me it was obvious how frighteningly high-level this woman was with a club in her hand.
Kathy Whitworth won six more tournaments than Wright in her career, and Patty Berg won two more majors, but Mickey didn’t stay around long. She won 44 tournaments in a span of four years. That’s 11 tournaments per year, in a season with fewer events than we have today. Wright is rated by experts at Golf and Golf Digest as likely being the greatest female golfer to ever play the game. Even Whitworth, with her prodigious victory list, observed that for women, she was Nicklaus, Palmer and Woods all rolled into one.
Wrights mother drove her long distances every week to study that Mickey Wright swing, the one that belonged on the Bolshoi ballet stage or in Michelangelo’s studio as much as it did on the golf course. It was called Platonic Perfection. There was no contaminating emotion, no chaos, no questions. Once she found it, she never let go of it. It was beautiful in the 50s, and just as beautiful decades later. It’s hard to believe that Wright ever had an inferiority complex, but I guess that being called Moose in school will eventually get to you.
People were always telling Ben Hogan he had the most beautiful swing they ever saw. Asked about it, he replied that Mickey Wright had “the greatest golf swing I ever saw.” It just goes to show how different success can look. When referred to as a female Arnold Palmer, she freaked out. Wright was dedicated to the swing, where Palmer was…well, not. She cringed when he took up a golf club, as if she feared he would hurt himself. She famously remarked that Palmer was lucky “he’s as strong as an ox.”
In the old days of club technology, Mickey Wright could out-drive many of the men on tour. At a night-lit exhibition, the host asked her to demonstrate how to make a golf ball disappear. Her drive was still climbing when it flew out of sight. Later, when a big drive was required, she said to herself, “Make it disappear.” She was disapproving of modern clubs that made the sweet spot easier to find., and loved a difficult, high 2-iron into a bunkered green.
Mickey was deadly in a clutch situation. What we now call going into the ‘zone,’ she called going into the ‘fog,’ a mental place where she could concentrate. She was wicked in sudden death playoffs, and no lead could put her out of contention. In one Texas tournament, she rallied from 10 strokes back on Sunday with a 62, then finished it right away in sudden death. That must be disheartening for an opponent.
If one ever finds him or herself in Liberty, New Jersey, a trip to the USGA Museum is a good idea. Go see Wright’s tribute. No, it’s not a picture on the wall, it’s an entire room devoted to just Mickey Wright. That’s a hard feat to pull off.
It is so hard to lose the greats, but losing Mickey Wright brings an extra sadness, as I felt more connected to her than young male golfers normally would, considering all the male heroes around to follow. But perfect is perfect, and always worth following. – Platonically ideal, one might say.