MICKEY WRIGHT: A RETREAT FROM A FLAWLESS IMAGE

July 11, 1965

Some women are impossible to please. Take Mary Kathryn Wright, for instance. It should be enough to be young, to be blonde, to be prosperous, to be her country's top woman athlete, to play golf better than any woman ever has and to be the undisputed leader of that unique sporting sorority known as the Ladies Professional Golf Association. It should be enough, but it isn't, not by the length of one of Mickey Wright's tee shots hit downhill with the wind. This September, after 11 years as the world's most successful woman golfer, she plans to abandon a career worth $50,000 annually and start life over as a 30-year-old college sophomore.

This seems to make as much sense as trying to climb the Matterhorn on roller skates, but that is the way Mickey Wright thinks. To be interesting life must be a series of challenges, and if the challenges do not come to her she goes to them. As a result, she is a remarkable set of contrasts: on the surface as serene and cool as a college president's wife serving Sunday tea to the faculty, but all the while trying to decide whether to put Ac'cent or strychnine in the sugar bowl.

"I am caustic and hot-tempered," she says. "I want to say what I think. I can't do anything without wanting it perfect. I'm really very critical of everything. I am a perfectionist about others as well as myself, and I do not mind pointing out imperfections when I see them. I feel I have to. But I have also learned that a public image has to be better than just plain human."

Being just plain human has put some tarnish on Mickey's public image from time to time. She has thrown clubs and tantrums, kicked at bushes and told off tournament directors and photographers in graphic, articulate language. But there is a great deal more to her than an occasional flash of Tommy Bolt.

"Mickey is the opposite of what Babe Zaharias was, for instance," says Betsy Rawls, who earned a Phi Beta Kappa key at the University of Texas and is Mickey's closest friend on the ladies' golf tour. "Babe relished all of the publicity she got. She would go out of her way to get it. She loved to clown in front of big crowds—a real show-off. She dominated any group she was in simply because she wanted attention and wanted her way. Mickey can dominate any group, too, but in a much more intellectual way. She starts interesting conversations and keeps them going. She draws others out. But, unlike Babe, Mickey has never felt at ease with large groups of strangers."

"That is right," says Mickey. "I do not enjoy all the things that go with being a champion. I very much want adulation while I am on the golf course, but not anywhere else. It seems to embarrass me. I feel I have to turn myself on all the time."

Mickey did not begin to think about turning herself on until she had an explosive run-in with a tournament official at the Triangle Round Robin in 1957. A round-robin tournament is a statistical nightmare in which a player's success is determined not just by what score he shoots but by how badly the competitors in his foursome play. A sudden substitution in her group for the last round was unfair, Mickey thought, because it involved replacing a slumping player with an alternate likely to shoot a better round, thus making it more difficult for the others in the foursome to score points. When she came off the last green having lost the tournament by one point to Fay Crocker—but having beaten Fay by five strokes on her own score—Mickey was mad enough to bite a two-iron in half. She swore, she stamped, she kicked at bushes, and when she finally located the tournament official who had made the change in pairings, the late John McAuliffe, she hit him with a broadside worthy of a man-of-war. The LPGA tournament committee fined Mickey $100 for her outburst and told her she would have to make a personal apology to McAuliffe or she would be suspended.

"When I got the word about what I had to do," says Mickey, "my first reaction was, 'I won't do it. I'm right, McAuliffe's wrong.' Then I started to think about it. I finally realized I had made a complete fool out of myself by displaying my emotions. You can't just act the way you feel. It was an enlightening and at the same time disillusioning experience. I had learned that it was unrealistic to try and stick to what I considered my high principles—to be what I felt like being."

The outgrowth of this incident was the establishment of what Mickey considers the ideal public image for her and, though her version of a living doll has been most successful, it suits her about as well as a hair shirt. She is, or, to be more accurate, she acts, bland, pristine and innocuous.

"I want everyone to think I am just a nice, charming girl," she attempts to explain. "No, that is not exactly what I want either, but something like that. It is something I like to see in other people, anyway. I do not know Byron Nelson, but he seems to have the kind of thing I have in mind for myself. He seems calm and friendly and charming. At least, this is the personality that Nelson shows to the public. No, it's stronger than that. I find it very hard to describe an image. I want to be someone who could be respected because of, well, maybe impeccable behavior, or for having a kind of detachment, or for gracious manners, but not a snob. My gosh, this sounds too Olympian. Not cold, but...."

"But someone who does not want to be loved?" she was asked.

"No!" she shouted, then looked up sheepishly. "Oh dear, was that too emphatic? Anyway, I want an image with no chinks, no flaws. I think I have accomplished that, but I am not really like that and it is a strain. I am really quite emotional. Anytime you find someone who feels that she has to create an image for herself you have found an emotional person."

Mickey has been emotional about golf since she first came to grips with the game. She was 10 years old, a tomboy of sorts in San Diego who preferred football and baseball with the boys to dolls with the girls, when her father, a prosperous lawyer, gave her a toy set of golf clubs. The first time she went out to play with them she swung so hard at the ball she broke every club. So she started off with a forceful interest in the game. As a young golfer she had one distinct advantage. At the age of 11 she stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, about what she is today. This meant that her golf swing always had a very big arc and, without forcing, she could hit the ball a long way. Another result of her height was that right through high school, even though she had bright blue eyes and a dimpled smile, she was too self-conscious to enjoy much of a social life. "It was really a thing with me," she recalls now. "I would not even go to the movies with a boy unless he was taller than I was."

While her classmates were at the movies, Mickey was on the golf course. She played every day, carrying her own clubs in a white canvas bag. She would hit as many as 300 balls in one practice session, scooping them up later with a tin can nailed to the end of a board. By the time she turned pro late in 1954, at the age of 19, she had won the National Girls' Junior Championship and had been the runner-up to Barbara Romack in the National Amateur. She was one of the longest hitters in the game, amateur or pro, and her swing was simple and compact.

Unfortunately, there was nothing simple or compact about her golfing temperament. It was an emotional jumble of misconceptions.

"When I first came out on the tour," she recalls, "I felt pretty confident. I knew I could hit the ball well with a full swing. But I was a terrible chipper and putter."

"She certainly was," says Betsy Rawls, who has always been a superb short-game player. "She figured that your score should be in direct proportion to the number of greens you hit in regulation. She felt it took skill to drive, but chipping and putting were just a matter of luck. She would moan about her short game. Then, when she would have a bad round, she would blame everyone but Mickey Wright for her own mistakes on the golf course. I guess I told her pretty often that until she realized that it was Mickey Wright who had just fluffed a chip shot, not a marshal or her caddie, she would never reach her potential. I remember we were playing at St. Petersburg in 1958, and after listening to the usual complaining about a bad round I really sailed into her. I let her have it. This time it got through. She had finally reached the point where she could understand what I had been trying to tell her for so long."

"I got kind of mad that time, all right," Mickey recalls, but for once it all seemed to fall into place. I realized I had just been feeling sorry for myself, and that disgusted me!"

It should have. Even good golf shots furnish the material for some of life's dullest conversations, but bad ones? Whew. From that moment on there was very little about Mickey's golf to disgust anyone. On the course, the way she hit a golf ball furnished excitement for all who watched her. Off the course, she was warm and gracious to all who met her. In her first three years on the tour Mickey was able to win only four tournaments. In 1958 she won five tournaments, the first of four U.S. Opens and the first of four Ladies PGA championships. Today she has amassed a record of 65 tournament titles and more than $185,000 in prize money. She has been not just the leading light of the LPGA tour, she has been the LPGA tour. This fact has been very discouraging to the tour's spear carriers, who have had to be content to trudge along behind her.

"If she does retire I will be truly sorry, because she is such a great player and has done so much for our organization," says Kathy Whitworth, the tall, long-hitting girl from Jal, N. Mex. who seems most likely to take the No. 1 position when Mickey vacates the scene. "But Mickey has dominated the tour so completely that it has been pretty frustrating. People hardly know the rest of us are here. After the 1963 season I was feeling good about myself. I had won eight tournaments. Even though Mickey had won 13, it was still the best year I'd ever had. Then someone asked me right at the beginning of 1964: 'How did you do last year?' It made me want to quit trying."

There are others just as keenly aware of Mickey Wright's importance to the ladies' tour, especially tournament sponsors. In 1963 Mickey rather suddenly decided to take a brief rest from the tour. The sponsors of two tournaments she had planned to skip, in Baltimore and Worcester, Mass., had a simple response to the request that Miss Wright be allowed to stay home for a couple of weeks. "No Mickey Wright, no tournament," they said, creating an impasse that was eventually resolved in the only possible way—she played in both events.

It is anyone's guess what will happen to the ladies' tour with no Mickey Wright in most of the tournaments, and the man who is trying to guess hardest is Tournament Director Leonard Wirtz. He sits at home in Cincinnati trying to dream up any workable scheme that will get Mickey back on the tour next year, at least during the summer.

"Her retirement really hurts," says Wirtz, stating the obvious, "but she has already done an awful lot for this organization. Besides, I am so fond of her that when she confided in me a year ago that she was thinking about this I never tried to talk her out of it. Money does not motivate this girl, challenges do. There is an emphasis everywhere on getting a college degree these days. Everyone is talking 'college degree, college degree, college degree.' So Mickey wants a college degree.

The positive motivation of obtaining a college degree was certainly a potent factor in luring Mickey, who finished a year at Stanford when she was 19, into a more contemplative way of life, but the negative matter of having to play high-pressure golf week after week and of having to maintain her position at the top contributed a great deal to her final decision. Her temperament was becoming publicly unsettled again, and injuries—such as the one that kept her out of last week's Women's Open—were getting more frequent.

"The desire to quit really started bugging me two years ago, the year I won 13 tournaments," she says. "I was getting a little scared. My gosh, where do I go from here? I was under constant pressure to win, a good deal of it from the newspapers where we played. If I was winning no one would really bother me. That was easy, that was what I was supposed to do. But if I wasn't winning a whole troop of guys would follow me around. "What's the matter? How come you aren't ahead?' I knew I could not win every week, but naturally they couldn't see it that way. After all, this was their town and their week, and I was not winning their tournament. I found myself getting defensive and irritable, and I did not like myself. Last summer the pressure began to get to me to the point where I was always tired, my health was bad [she developed ulcers] and I could feel myself losing control of my emotions. I knew something was going to happen."

And something did. In the first round of a tournament in Albuquerque she became irritated by a television photographer who brought TV's imperious eye a little too close to the action. Mickey cast out a few hints that perhaps he could back off a little so that she would not hear the whir of his camera at the top of her backswing. By the 9th hole she had grown as hot as the desert climate. The photographer, squirming in front of a shocked gallery, received a tongue-lashing reminiscent of the events at the Triangle tournament in 1957. Only this time Mickey did not beat anybody by five strokes. She stomped through the last nine holes like a berserk elephant, six-putted one green and wound up the day with a nice, fat 86 and a nice, fat emotional hangover.

"I had completely lost control of myself," she says, "and I figured it might happen again. Everything I had built up over the years, all my care about my public image, would be out the window. This finally made me decide to quit the tour."

Strange though it is, when Mickey Wright takes her place behind a desk in a classroom at Southern Methodist University this fall her fellow golfers, who will now get back into the limelight, are not going to be turning handsprings in celebration.

"People come out to see Mickey play even when she's 10 shots back," says Patty Berg. "They know she can still win. She draws crowds. She increases the gate, and that is what determines prize money."

But even more indicative of Mickey's stature is the comment of Kathy Whit-worth: "I have been shooting at the top for years," she says, "and suddenly the top is gone. Even if I do turn out to be No. 1, it won't taste the same. Everybody is going to say, 'Mickey Wright wasn't playing.' "

THREE PHOTOSTHE MANY FACES of complex Mickey are seen during a single interview, as she ranges from image-conscious charm to introspective deliberation to an open display of tension and weariness.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)