BRADENTON, Fla. – He’s the last club pro to challenge for the crowning event of his own trade association. In the summer of 1969, on the weekend of Woodstock, Jimmy Wright found himself closing on Raymond Floyd over the final nine of the PGA Championship at NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio.
At the 15th hole, Wright stood over an 8-foot birdie putt to narrow the gap to a stroke. He missed, missed again, and finished three shots back, in fourth place, worth $8,300. That afternoon, on the road to Wright’s home club, Inwood (N.Y.) Country Club, the Bargain Town discount store remade its billboard, congratulating the new local hero.
Some club pros, whose spots in the PGA have been reduced from as many as 64 in Wright’s era to 20 today, might have rued such a lost opportunity. For Wright, the 1969 PGA was but one of many tournament achievements that collectively amount to a kind of Grand Slam of club pro life. Wright played in 26 professional majors, including 13 PGAs and 11 U.S. Opens. His effort at NCR qualified him for the 1970 Masters, where he finished a shot out of the top 24 and a return to Augusta National. In 1974, he traveled to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where he qualified for his only Open Championship.
Wright wasn’t the first full-time club pro to play in golf’s four majors in a career. Winged Foot’s Claude Harmon did it in one year, 1948. But Wright probably will be the last. Before the 1970s, there was so little money to be made as a touring professional that aspiring players relied upon club affiliations for regular income and plied their trade on the road sparingly. Wright had tried the Tour in 1962-63 and found it lacking financially and emotionally.
“I never beat myself up about not playing the Tour more,” he said. “There wasn’t any money to be won. I preferred security and a home life.”
Born in 1939 in Bentonville, Ark., and raised in Enid, Okla., Wright attended Oklahoma State. His Cowboys, loaded in the early ’60s with the likes of Labron Harris Jr., Terry Wilcox and Cotton Dunn, couldn’t quite overtake the Houston powerhouse of Homero Blancas, Fred Marti, Jacky Cupit and Phil Rodgers.
After a hitch in the Army and some months on Tour, Wright became an assistant pro at Winged Foot under the legendary Harmon.
By 1966, Wright was established as the head professional at Inwood, a Long Island club that had been home to the 1921 PGA and the ’23 U.S. Open. He dominated the local tournament circuit, winning the Metropolitan Open (1969), Metropolitan PGA (1972, ’74, ’76, ’80) and was named Metropolitan PGA Section Player of the Year (1969, 1972-76, ’80).
In 1976, Wright succeeded Herman Barron at Fenway Golf Club. Twelve years later, Wright moved to Florida, first at Falls Country Club in Lake Worth, then The Oaks Club in Osprey. After several years running his golf-apparel firm, The Wright Approach, he returned to his roots in the game as tournament director at The Concession in Bradenton. There, says general manager Bruce Cassidy Jr., Wright serves “as a great ambassador to the game, someone who has a successful playing career and who works with local organizations to bring events to the club.”
Not just as an ambassador but also as an inspiration. Which is how I got to know Wright, during that charmed summer of 1969. Two weeks before that fateful PGA Championship, the caddie master where I looped, The Woodmere (N.Y.) Club, handed me Wright’s red and white Wilson Staff bag on a Sunday afternoon and said, “You take the big guy.”
Wright already was a legend. Tall, just slightly stooped until he stood up to the ball, he hit a high draw that went farther than anything I had seen. At Woodmere’s fifth hole, a 500-yard par 5, nobody cut the dogleg over the copse of trees to the left. Nobody, that is, until Wright launched a signature draw down the left side, obliterating the dogleg as I stood mouth agape. I raced up to the ball, took the measure of the remaining yardage, and to this day recall the surge of excitement and pride as I handed him the 5-iron that he requested. He reached the green in two, two-putted for birdie and went on to shoot a flawless 65 – the first great round I witnessed.
Forty-two years later, Jimmy Wright remains a legend in my book. And in the annals of the PGA Championship. m