Bill Wright, the Franklin High School and Western Washington University sports star who became the first Black competitor to win a United States Golf Association championship, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 84.
Wright, who learned the game at Jefferson Park golf course on Beacon Hill, made history in 1959 when he won the U.S. Amateur Public Links championship in Denver.
“He felt so thrilled to be the best golfer that day, not the best Black golfer,” said Ceta Wright, who was married to Bill for 60 years. “And, of course, afterward he realized that he was a barrier breaker and that was important to him. It was important to everyone, really, and especially in the Black community.”
Wright was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and his family moved west when he was 12. He started playing golf at 14, joining the Fir State Golf Club’s junior program at Jefferson Park and in less than a year became the city’s junior champion.
Wright helped lead Franklin High School to its first state basketball title in 1954, and was named third-team all-state. In 1956, he played on the Westside Ford AAU team with Elgin Baylor, who became one of the game’s all-time greats.
Baylor, in his autobiography, “Hang Time,” wrote about the time he and Wright drag-raced late at night on Aurora Avenue.
Wright won the race, but the two were pulled over by police and Baylor wrote that Wright’s father took “Bill’s car away for months.”
That was a rare misstep for Wright, who starred in basketball and golf at Western. He was a senior in 1959 when he was one of 2,345 entrants in the U.S. Amateur Public Links championship.
After just making the field of 64 to advance into match play, he easily won his first four matches. In the semifinals, he defeated the 1957 champion, Don Essig III, 1-up. A 3-and-2 victory over Frank Campbell in the finals cemented Wright’s place in history.
“Well, I’m proud that I did what I did,” Wright told The Seattle Times in 2009 on the 50-year anniversary of his historic triumph. “I don’t know that I can say that I think about it all the time, but I remember that tournament clearly.”
Wright won the NAIA title for Western the next spring. He spent time on the PGA Tour and competed in one U.S. Open and five U.S. Senior Opens.
“Bill Wright was an iconic representative of Western Washington University, not only from an athletics perspective, but as a wonderful human being,” said Steve Card, the athletic director at Western Washington and former golf coach. “He impacted the world by breaking the color line in American golf, but beyond that was a wonderful person that touched a lot of people in many ways.”
In 1961, Wright lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur Public Links, which might have been a good thing because if he had reached the finals he would have had to delay his wedding to Ceta.
“When he got there (to the wedding), one of my girlfriends said, ‘I’m so glad you lost the tournament,’ ” Ceta said. “I said, ‘No, don’t say that. No, no, no.'”
For more than 25 years, Wright was a golf teacher at the Lakes at El Segundo near Los Angeles. Ceta said Bill played basketball until his 50s, and once played on a team that included actor Greg Morris and legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax.
In January 2017, Wright had a stroke. It took away his ability to speak, and he was bedridden the rest of his life, his wife said.
His place in history was secure decades before. In 1968, Wright was among seven inductees in the first class of the Western Washington athletics hall of fame and in 2013 he was inducted into the Pacific Northwest Golf Association hall of fame.
“We have lost a hero, but the advice and lessons that Bill provided will have a lasting impact for generations to come,” Card said. “The term great or greatest gets tossed around loosely in the sports world. Bill Wright was a great human being. For me personally, calling him my friend, is one of my life’s greatest blessings.”
Ceta Wright said her husband felt strong ties to Seattle and the state of Washington.
“Even when he became sick (he suffered from Alzheimer’s), he talked about going home, he wanted to come back to Seattle,” Ceta said. “He would say to me someday, ‘Let’s get in the car and drive up to Seattle.’ … We came up as often as we could when Bill was well, and we loved coming.”