It’s pretty much impossible to put into context quite how successful Mickey Wright was but this is a start. At the weekend in Australia Inbee Park, the undoubted player of the last decade, claimed her 20th win on the LPGA Tour.
Go back a generation to Annika Sorenstam, who seemed to win at will, has a staggering 72 victories.
Wright, who died of a heart attack at 85 on Monday, recorded 82 wins – and she retired at 34.
“I maintain that she could have won 100 tournaments if she hadn’t quit early,” Kathy Whitworth, the only player above her on the list with 88, said.
The numbers that go alongside this are equally as startling.
- 13 major championship titles, second only to Patty Berg (15). These wins came over just an eight-year period and five were by five shots or more
- 13 victories in a single season (1963) which is a tour record and will always be. She is also second, along with Sorenstam, on this list with 11 wins the following year – 44 of those wins came in a four-year period
- 14 years straight with a win on tour, the first coming at the age of 21 and she topped the money list from 1961-64
But these figures don’t even begin to start telling the story of Mickey Wright.
“She had the finest swing I ever saw,” Ben Hogan once said. As compliments go this is probably as good as it gets. Byron Nelson agreed. To watch it nowadays on YouTube it’s a thing of power and beauty. She credits it to Harry Pressler who began working with her at 15.
“I could hit it so well. I used to say the second-greatest feeling in the world was a high 2-iron to a well-trapped green. I swung the club. That’s it. The key word is swing, not turn. Not ground your feet like they were in cement so your body doesn’t move. That’s not a swing to me.”
Whitworth added: “She was the best I’ve ever seen, man or woman. I’ve had the privilege of playing with Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and all of them. And some of our ladies had wonderful swings. But nobody hit it like Mickey, just nobody.”
Another peer and Hall of Famer Betsy Rawls summed it up even more simply: “Mickey was the best golfer we’ve ever had and that I’ve ever seen.”
She was so important to the women’s game that sponsors would pull out if she wasn’t playing. It meant she would always play. Take the record-breaking 1963 season, a year when she was also president of the Tour, when she won 13 times including a third straight success in the Mickey Wright Invitational – the year began at Sea Island on February 3 and concluded, 32 tournaments later, in Mississippi in mid-November. There were also endless interviews, clinics, cocktail parties and any means of promoting the women’s game.
For her efforts Wright topped the money list with $31,269.
Wright once said of her outlook to the game: “I’m not a gut-level, gritty competitor in any way. Perfection motivated me, doing it better than anyone had ever done it, just as simply as that. I would practise for hours and hours. I beat balls and beat balls and beat balls.
“I played very much more than I could physically and emotionally handle. I got winning and golf and myself very closely tied up. Golf was me, and I was nothing without golf. Really, I took it to an extreme for a while.
“The pressure of the press can be very brutal. If you don’t win, if you come in second or third, there are comments such as, ‘What happened to you? Is your game falling apart? Are you over the hill?’ This bothered me very much and for a time made me very cynical, which was a trait I did not like in myself.”
By 1969 she was done and stepped away from the game although her final win came four years later at the Dinah Shore in the days before it was a major.
Reports say she had an aversion to sunlight and flying, tallied with foot problems, but Wright was quick to point out that she wasn’t a recluse and she would still hit balls in her back yard in Florida, but she felt no pull back towards the public eye.
In 2006 she overcame breast cancer and, five years later, she would become the first woman to have a room named after her at the USGA museum.
The last word goes to Whitworth, the only player to have won more events but she is under no illusions as to who was the absolute stand-out superstar.
“She was our Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Nancy Lopez all rolled into one. She was it.”