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‘Nobody hit it like Mickey': Wright, 13-time women’s major champ, dies at 85

Mickey Wright’s swing may have been the most elegant in the history of the game, but its rhythmic beauty belied the intensity of desire that created it.

Her genius was in the way she channeled obsessive devotion to excellence into such graceful execution.

She was, by almost all accounts, the greatest woman who ever played the game.

Wright died Monday of a heart attack, according to a report from The Associated Press. She was 85.

“I’m not a gut-level, gritty competitor in any way,” Wright once told author Liz Kahn. “Perfection motivated me, doing it better than anyone had ever done it, just as simply as that. I would practice for hours and hours. I beat balls and beat balls and beat balls.”

Wright’s work ethic helped her compile one of the greatest playing records in the history of the game, a list of achievements made more impressive when you consider she stopped playing full time at 34.

Her achievements include:

  • 82 LPGA titles, second only to Kathy Whitworth (88).
  • 13 major championship titles, second only to Patty Berg (15). Four of those were U.S. Women’s Open titles, equaling Betsy Rawls for most ever.
  • 13 victories in a single LPGA season (1963). It remains the tour record. She won 11 times in 1964, which equals Annika Sorenstam for second most LPGA victories in a season.
  • Four consecutive major championship victories, a mark no other woman has ever achieved. She won the last two majors in 1961 and the first two in ’62.
  • Five consecutive Vare Trophy titles for low scoring average (1960-64), the most won in a row in tour history.
  • Four consecutive LPGA money titles (1961-64).
  • 14 consecutive years with an LPGA victory (1956-69).

Wright made the best players in the world marvel.

“She had the finest golf swing I ever saw,” Ben Hogan once said.

Wright used that finely honed swing to dominate, winning 44 times in a four-year run (1961-64).

“Mickey was the best golfer we’ve ever had, and that I’ve ever seen,” Rawls once said.

Whitworth saw it up close as a contemporary.

“She was the best I’ve ever seen, man or woman,” Whitworth once told ESPN. “I’ve had the privilege of playing with Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and all of them. Nobody hit it like Mickey, just nobody. She had 82 wins, but she would have won over 100 with no trouble if she had stayed on tour.”

One of the six inaugural inductees into the LPGA Hall of Fame, Wright’s importance to the game can’t be overstated. Her appearances kept a number of LPGA tournaments on the schedule in the ‘60s, which added to the growing pressure Wright felt as the game’s biggest star of the era. As president of the LPGA in 1963 and ’64, she had to deal with tournament sponsors threatening to cancel their events if she didn’t play. So she played a lot.

“The pressure was so great,” Whitworth once said. “Knowing if they canceled, the rest of us wouldn’t be able to play, Mickey would always play.”

That took a toll on Wright.

“I played very much more than I could physically and emotionally handle,” she told Kahn for the book “The LPGA: The History of the LPGA, The Unauthorized Version.”

Wright said developing an adverse reaction to sunlight, an aversion to flying, foot problems and other ailments also led to her decision to stop playing full time in 1969. Her discomfort in the public eye was also surely a factor. It challenged her throughout her career.

“I was always shy,” she once said.

That made being the face of the LPGA in the difficult.

“I got winning and golf and myself very closely tied up,” Wright told Kahn. “Golf was me, and I was nothing without golf. Really, I took it to an extreme for a while.”

Expectations mounted the more Wright won. Still, she played full schedules, did countless clinics, exhibitions and interviews to promote the tour.

“The pressure of the press can be very brutal,” Wright said. “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.”

When Wright fully retired, she withdrew from the public eye. She continued to avidly follow the game, and she did occasional interviews with reporters, only by phone in her latter years. She said she was content with life in her home in Port St. Lucie, Florida. She hit balls off a mat on her back porch onto a golf course in her backyard into her ‘70s. She liked to fish and play the stock market in retirement, but she stayed out of the limelight.

“But it is absolutely incorrect to think that I am a recluse,” she told Golf World in 2000. “The people who know me know that’s incorrect. I don’t hide out, put on sunglasses and pull a cap down when I go out or anything like that. I just like life simple.”

In 1999, the Associated Press named Wright the female golfer of the century. In 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery. In 2011, the USGA honored her with the opening of the Mickey Wright room in its museum, making her just the fourth player and first woman to have such a collection opened in her honor.

Wright’s affection for the tour was also evident in her decision to become the LPGA’s first statistician.

“I’m a nut with figures and decided I would start keeping records,” Wright said.

Her love affair with golf was passed down by her father, Arthur, while growing up in San Diego. He got her started when she was 4, eventually taking her to La Jolla Country Club to work with Johnny Bellante, who also taught Gene Littler. She would later credit another teacher, Harry Pressler, for helping hone her iconic swing. She was 15 when she began working with him and 17 when she won the U.S. Junior Girls’ Junior.

“My swing, which people have praised, is really Harry’s swing,” Wright told Golf Digest.

Wright credited her mother for driving her to so many lessons and tournaments, and she said her father was a chief motivating force throughout her career. She said his praise was hard to come by, which drove her all the more.

“My father was a huge influence on my golfing life, and he never told me he thought I’d done well until it was all over,” Wright once said.

Admiration for Wright promises to forever echo with her place so prominently secured in the game’s consciousness, with her enshrinement in the World Golf Hall of Fame, LPGA Hall of Fame and the PGA of America Hall of Fame, with her room at the USGA museum and with YouTube videos allowing future generations to appreciate the elegance of her swing.