A PGA Professional with a powerful swing, Jimmy Wright drove down Magnolia Lane in April 1970 to play in his first Masters, having earned his invitation to the prestigious tournament by finishing fourth in the PGA Championship the summer before.
He was in the prime of an outstanding playing career, would go on to compete in 26 professional major championships, set course records at storied venues like Carnoustie and Westchester and earn a sterling reputation as one of the finest players ever seen in the PGA of America’s talent-rich Metropolitan section in New York.
“What he accomplished as a club pro playing the game is unsurpassed, really,” PGA of America historian Bob Denney said.
Wright is today, and may remain, the last PGA Professional to compete in the Masters, an event that began as a relaxed invitational in 1934 for Bobby Jones and friends but has become perhaps the most recognizable golf tournament in the world.
What a week it was amid the dogwoods and azaleas. He brushed shoulders with legends, crushed tee shots and putted with precision on the tricky greens of Augusta National.
Wright recorded a 72-hole total of 293, which was 14 shots higher than winner Billy Casper, but also lower than three past champions, including Arnold Palmer. His score was also one shot higher than what he needed to finish in the top 24 and return to play the Masters the following year.
He never made the field again.
“When you’re young, you think you’ll get back,” Wright, 75, said. “I didn’t realize the significance at the time.”
Born in Arkansas and raised in Oklahoma, Wright accepted a scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he was a three-time All-American, one of the first stars in a program that produced 1986 PGA champion Bob Tway and U.S. Ryder Cup regulars Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler.
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After college, Wright married his childhood sweetheart Joyce, spent time in the Army and returned home eager to put to use his business degree and start a career in golf. Playing the PGA Tour full time was a risky deal for a family man in the 1960s. The leading money winner for the season earned less than $100,000. The modern tour pro earns that much by finishing 15th or 20th in a regular season tournament.
So in 1964, Wright took a job as an assistant pro at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., working under the legendary Claude Harmon, 1948 Masters champion.
A year later, Wright was hired as head professional at Inwood Golf Club on Long Island where he remained for a decade. In 1969 at NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio, he dueled Raymond Floyd and Gary Player for the PGA Championship. Wright finished fourth, which remains the best finish by a club professional at stroke play. At the time, the top eight finishers were invited to play in the next year’s Masters.
Massive galleries faced and tournament pressure felt at the ‘69 PGA helped prepare Wright for the challenge of playing the Masters.
“The ‘69 PGA was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Wright said. “We were on the first hole in the last round and I remember looking down the fairway at people lined three or four deep all the way to the green. Must have been 10 or 15 thousand people. I couldn’t see the fairway, thought I might kill somebody.”
Wright sharpened his game for the 1970 Masters by following the PGA Tour from January through March. In those days, before the all-exempt tour, each Monday any pro could try to qualify for a tournament. Wright chased the Tour up the West Coast and over to Florida, making four cuts in nine starts before he arrived in Augusta.
He and his wife rented a motel room in town.
Early in the week he played a practice round with a young amateur from Stanford University named Tom Watson, having no reason to think the free-swinging redhead would win the Masters twice in the next 12 years.
Once Wright became comfortable on what he described as “hallowed ground,” he felt the course suited his game. Wright had a high right-to-left ball flight and his length off the tee enabled his drives to reach some of the flatter parts of Augusta National’s rolling fairways. The wide landing areas and light rough reminded him of the courses back home in Oklahoma.
Still, on the opening Thursday jangly nerves prevailed - and Wright wasn’t the only one feeling them.
“I remember the first round, teeing off right in front of me was (Tom) Weiskopf,” Wright said. “We were on the tee, and he cold-topped it 20 yards. Back then the tee box dropped off. The ball rolled to the top of the tee and down the hill and I just thought don’t let me do that in front of all these people.”
Wright opened with 75, but bounced back to shoot 72-71, hitting an 8-iron into the par-5 No. 13 on his second shot in one round and lipping out the putt for eagle. A 1-under 35 on the front nine Sunday put him in excellent position for a strong finish.
Most observers feel the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday. Wright had trouble starting his back nine on Sunday.
“Back then they had a barker who stood by the 18th green to tell the gallery as the twosomes were coming up who they were and what they had accomplished to get to the Masters.” Wright said.
In this case the golfer approaching 18 needed no introduction: it was Arnold Palmer. Wright stood roughly 60 yards away on the 10th tee, waiting to play.
“(The barker) started off with his national amateur and went through everything he had won. I kept getting up to the tee and backing off. It probably took five minutes, but it felt like a half hour.”
Wright’s drive started right and failed to draw on the downhill dogleg left par four. From the trees, he struggled to a double bogey, lost his momentum, shot 40 on the back nine and though he didn’t realize it at the time squandered a chance to crack the top 24. He likes to joke that Palmer cost him a shot at playing in another Masters.
“Even if that hadn’t happened I might have done something worse coming in,” Wright said.
It was a costly swing for Wright, who earned $1275 for his tie for 29th. But not his biggest regret from the week. As a competitor in the tournament he was given four clubhouse passes for tournament week. The following year, when given the chance to purchase the passes again, he declined.
“I let ‘em go,” he said. “Worst decision I’ve ever made in my life. They weren’t quite as popular as they are now. They weren’t easy to get. They are impossible now.”
Wright never returned to Augusta National, neither as a guest of a member nor to watch the tournament. He’s wanted to, it just hasn’t worked out. A lifetime member of the PGA of America, he and Joyce have been married 51 years, have four adult daughters and live in the Sarasota, Florida area. He’s a member at The Concession Golf Club, where he worked until 2012. He plays golf about once a week and has shot his age or better 58 times, including a 73 last month at the Ritz-Carlton course in Bradenton.
He holds only fond memories of his week competing on an iconic course that can scare the toughest pro and thrill a golf novice. Most years he’s glued to the television screen during the tournament, amazed by the talent displayed by the Tour’s new breed of stars, impressed by their prodigious drives and delicate touch.
Their shots bring wonderful memories to life.
Looking back on a stellar, rewarding career in golf, he’s grateful for all he accomplished. A seven-time Metropolitan PGA Player of the Year, he competed in 13 PGA Championships, 11 U.S. Opens and an Open Championship.
“I’ve been very very fortunate and owe a lot to the game and the PGA of America” he said. “I always felt I was representing a lot of PGA members when I was able to play in those tournaments. There were a lot of other guys who were certainly good enough but just didn’t have the opportunity.”