Mickey Wright at Baltusrol

Mickey Wright and the 1961 U.S. Women's Open at Baltusrol

A Day to Remember
By Dick Brown

Fifty years ago, on July 1st, 1961, Mickey Wright won her third U.S. Women’s Open, at Baltusrol, by six strokes over Betsy Rawls. On that Saturday, when the last 36 holes of the championship were played in back-to-back rounds, Wright produced arguably some of the best golf ever played by a woman. Indeed, this golf was some of the best ever played by anyone at Baltusrol. The date is an historic one for Baltusrol because of Wright’s achievement on the Lower Course and for the game itself, because on that day her name was added to the short list of the game’s greatest players.

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As the players played their practice rounds, they and the press were anticipating that Baltusrol’s Lower would play remarkably long for women golfers and would prove to be the toughest venue in the history of the event, even though it had been played at Winged Foot East four years earlier. The rough was not mentioned as a factor, but the long par-4s and the fast greens were on everyone’s mind. The reporters also noted the 126 bunkers that populated the course.

Mickey Wright was an early favorite and must have been an easy pick for the writers as the woman to beat. While she was only 26 years old, she had been on the LPGA Tour for five years and already had accumulated 22 wins, including two U.S. Opens and three other majors. She had a short but successful amateur career. Soon after turning pro, she had moved to Dallas to work with Harvey Penick, who converted her to a Byron Nelson type swing that probably made her the longest hitter on the women’s tour. Her short game was a bit suspect but was improving. She was a good putter. In short, her game was well suited for Baltusrol.

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Opening day, Thursday, June 29th, was a perfect day for golf. The temperature was in the high 70s, the wind was light and the sky cloudless. The 2,500 spectators witnessed a concession to the 20th Century never seen before at Baltusrol (and not seen again for another 25 years) as some of the women wore shorts. A Newark newspaper suggested that this accommodation was achieved by the LPGA only after protracted discussions with Baltusrol's Board. More importantly, the fans saw Wright play the course in even par, a feat never before achieved by a woman in a championship at Baltusrol. During that opening round, she missed three greens, recorded two bogies (the third and sixth holes) and two birdies (the seventh and the 16th holes). She three putted once. The shots most commented on were her 2 iron into the seventh green and her 6 iron into the tenth. Later in the day, Jo Ann Prentice of Birmingham, Alabama also posted a 72 and joined Wright as the tournament co-leader. Johnny Farrell said of the two rounds, "This is undoubtedly a women's competitive course record, especially from where the tee markers were. Prior to the Men's Open here in 1954, Ben Hogan scored a 64 over the layout on National Golf Day." Wright told Lincoln Werden of the New York Times that "this may be the best round of golf I've ever played. I had a 66 at Memphis last year, but in some ways this round was better."

It’s always hard to follow a great round with a good round, and Wright’s opening 72 was indeed followed by a surprisingly high 80. Her play from tee to green was fine, but her putter let her down and she suffered from a touch of nerves. Her statement to the press was honest, “I can’t blame it on the weather (Ed. note: hot, humid weather arrived in New Jersey in time for the Friday and Saturday rounds). It’s a combination of playing in the Open and leading the field. I didn’t sleep too much last night. I knew I’d have a great round or a bad one. I’m glad this one is out of my system. It’s a human trait. I just didn’t have my emotions under control.” The poor round left her in a fourth place tie with Louise Suggs, behind the first round co-leader Prentice, Ruth Jessen, a steady top-ten performer in the 1960s, and Betsy Rawls.

Wright later wrote that she was staying at a Holiday Inn “that had old fashioned rugs, the kind that you can putt on.” After dinner she spent a few hours practicing. 

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Whatever it was with her putting stroke that she discovered that evening she was able to take to the golf course on Saturday, for she played some of the best golf of her career. Her third round did not look to have all that much promise after three holes when she stepped onto the fourth tee one over par. But she birdied the fourth, which in that round was played from the back of the men’s tee, and followed with birdies on the sixth, seventh, 13th, 17th and 18th. She shot a 34 on the front nine of her morning round, two strokes better than a charging Betsy Rawls, and took the lead on the eighth hole. She gained two strokes on Rawls on the back nine, finished with 69, and went to lunch leading by two. She felt semi-hounded by the press at the lunch break as she had only one hour to eat and get ready to play in the afternoon. In spite of her two stroke lead, she knew that Rawls, a four-time winner of the event, frequently had come from behind to win. Wright felt that she would need to produce more excellent golf to win. She did spend a few minutes with the writers, telling them that her morning round of 34–35–69 was her best round to date in competition.

Rawls, as it happened, did not have the great final round she needed but did shoot a highly respectable 73. Wright shot another 72 and finished at 293 (+5), winning by six strokes. She and Rawls were the only players who broke 300, and the prediction that the women golfers would be severely tested by the Lower was pretty much validated.

Frank Hannigan, writing in the USGA Journal, began his description of Wright’s fourth round in the following way: “Miss Wright played her closing round of 72 as if she had just read the USGA definition of par as ‘perfect play without flukes and under ordinary weather conditions, always allowing two stokes on each putting green.’” Wright did not, in fact, play a perfect round, as she needed birdies on the first and seventh holes to offset bogies, caused by bunkered iron shots, on the third and 16th holes. She hit 16 greens in regulation or better and had the stipulated 18 two-putt greens.

Wright did not dwell too much in her later writings on her fine play at Baltusrol, other than to say that she had played some of her finest golf there. She did mention that she was happy her win would enable Johnny Ballante, who taught her the game at San Diego’s La Jolla Country Club when she was very young, to claim that two of his students had won U.S. Opens in the same year. The other winner was Gene Littler, who won the Men’s Open a month earlier at Oakland Hills.

If Wright was a bit diffident about her play on the last day of the Open, the golf writers were hugely impressed. Many of them were inclined to wonder in print whether they had just seen some of the greatest golf ever played. Lincoln Werden, writing in the next day’s New York Times, reported that, “Miss Wright’s 72, 80, 69, 72 was five over par for the championship course. Her 69 was one of the best scores in the history of the tourney, considering the length of the course, and one of the best ever credited to a woman golfer in the United States. She acknowledged this triumph as ‘the greatest of them all.’”

Golf World had the following to say about Wright’s third round: “A sensational round of 34–35–69 put Mickey on top after 54 holes with a total of 221 … There have been lower rounds in past National Opens, but there was an inclination among fans, in view of Baltusrol’s difficulty, to rate the round as among the best, if not the best, a woman had ever had.”

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Frank Hannigan titled his article in the August 1961 issue of the USGA Journal “Mickey Wright Has a Day to Remember at Baltusrol.” Early in the piece he wrote, “The talent of Mickey Wright was never more in evidence than on the final day of the 1961 Open. Her scores were 69 and 72 over one of the great golf courses. She quickly certified this victory as the most satisfying of her career because it transpired on such a marvelous test of the game.”

The statistic that jumps out from the four round summaries is Wright’s play of the par-5 holes, on which she scored seven under par. The writers tell us that she was hitting 2 and 3 irons into the first and seventh greens. She obviously was swinging those difficult clubs superbly, as she had five birdies on those two holes.

Wright’s win at Baltusrol catapulted her into comparisons with some of the greatest players of all time. Herbert Warren Wind, one of most eloquent writers of that (or any) generation, wrote in 1975 that ”One could make a good case for ranking Mickey Wright as one of the finest woman golfers of all time, but since there is no fair way to compare the stars of different eras, it is probably more judicious to say that she stands as one of the three greatest along with Babe Zaharias and Joyce Wethered, the tall, slim, English stylist of the 1920s who won nine of the twelve championships she entered in an abbreviated career.”

Further in the same piece, Wind wrote, “To get back to the performance at Baltusrol in the 1961 Women’s Open: At the halfway mark, because of her second round 80, on which she had putted very poorly, Mickey was four strokes behind the leaders. On the third day, when the last thirty six holes were played, she moved out in front with a coruscating 69 in the morning and then added a par 72 in the afternoon to finish six strokes in front. En route to her 69, she had no fewer than six birdies, but in a way, her closing 72 was every bit as brilliant, for she was on all the greens except two in the regulation stroke. The difference was that she needed only twenty-eight putts in the morning but in the afternoon took two on every green. Eloquent as they are, these figures do not begin to suggest the near perfection of Mickey Wright’s play on that double round. Throughout the long day of pressure, she laced one long drive after another down the middle of the narrow fairways. For all her length, she had to use a lot of club to get home on her approaches—3-irons, 4-irons, 5-irons, and 6-irons for the most part—but on hole after hole, hitting very pure shots, she put the ball within twenty feet of the pin. Had she been sinking putts in the afternoon, she could have been around 66, easily. It is hard to think of a comparable exhibition of beautifully sustained golf over thirty-six holes in a national championship, unless it be Ben Hogan’s last two rounds at Oakland Hills in the 1951 Open.”

Al Laney, who covered sports for the New York Herald Tribune for fifty years, was convinced that the best women’s golf he saw played was by Joyce Wethered and Glenna Collett at the 36-hole final match of the Women’s Championship at St Andrews in 1929. Years later, still convinced as to the stature of that match and its place in golf’s history, Laney nevertheless wrote, “I suspect that Miss Wright’s third and fourth rounds on the final day, 69-72, were, in fact, the most dynamic golf played by a woman in my time in a championship event over such a long and difficult course.”

Mickey Wright went on from Baltusrol to win another 59 titles, notching 82 LPGA Tour victories in her career. She would win another U.S. Open three years later, making four in total, and altogether won 13 LPGA majors. She set many records, most of which have been broken in the years since she played. In 1964, she shot a 30 on the front nine of a round in Midland, Texas on her way to a 62; this score stood for over 30 years as the single round scoring record on the LPGA Tour. She was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1964. In another lasting tribute, the major golf magazines have ranked her in the top ten best players of all time—men and women.

Note: Some of the material quoted herein came from the library at the USGA’s Golf House and was located there by Nancy Stulack, Librarian. The quotations from Herbert Warren Wind were originally published in a New Yorker magazine article that was reprinted in a 1975 book called “The Story of American Golf,” published by The Classics of Golf. The Laney quotation came from a book titled “Following the Leaders,” also published by The Classics of Golf. All of the books in The Classics of Golf collection are shelved in the Eldridge Room and are available to members.

A Rare Interview with Mickey Wright

I spoke briefly with Mickey Wright recently, and asked her what she remembered about her play at Baltusrol after fifty years and countless other tournaments. She noted first that half a century had flown by swiftly, and then said her primary memory of Baltusrol is that “it is such a good golf course.” 

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 She recalled that the Lower was long, demanding, and hard to putt, and that she needed every club in her bag to play it. The fourth hole was her favorite, and the stroke she remembered most readily was her three iron to a right, rear pin in the Saturday morning round when the hole was played from the back of the men’s tee at 170 yards. She recalled with pleasure that Louise Suggs was her playing partner that day.

She added that her victory at the Women’s Open in San Diego (1964) also was quite special to her, because it was the last one in which 36 holes were played on the final day. San Diego being her hometown may have something to do with it as well. She said that a 36-hole final is a truer test than the current format as it identifies the best player more accurately.

She seemed to be a remarkably pleasant and charming lady, with a lot of Texas drawl in her voice even though she grew up in California and has lived in Florida for many years. She volunteered some strong opinions relating to the state of the game today. When told that the Lower had been lengthened and that some of the fairway bunkers had been repositioned, she said it was too bad that so many fine, old courses had to be rebuilt, and that it would have been easy to avoid this by retaining the old balls and clubs.

—DB

Mickey Wright Responds

Following Dick Brown’s great piece on Mickey Wright in the September issue, she responded with the following letter:

Dear Mr. Brown,
What a lovely article you’ve written on my favorite day in golf. Thank you so much, and thank you for sending me a copy plus the scorecard.

You write so well, and I really appreciate your effort. All is as I remember it, with just one exception, I feel I must clear up. I didn’t move to Dallas to work with Harvey Penick, but to work with Earl Stewart, the man who taught me how to “Play Golf,” not just how to swing the club. I never really took lessons from Harvey, just went with Betsy Rawls when she did. I loved Harvey, but he wasn’t my teacher. Harry Pressler taught me how to swing the club.

Again, thank you so much for your kindness and consideration. I enjoyed chatting with you.

All the best to you,
Mickey Wright