From the late 1950s until her semiretirement in 1969, Ms. Wright was the preeminent figure in her sport, once winning 44 tournaments during a four-year span. She played infrequently after age 34, but her 82 tournament victories are the second most in women’s golf history, after Kathy Whitworth’s 88.
Ms. Wright was a four-time winner of both the U.S. Women’s Open and the LPGA Championship, and her 13 wins in major tournaments of the Ladies Professional Golf Association are second only to Patty Berg’s 15.
Experts at both Golf and Golf Digest magazines ranked Ms. Wright as the greatest female golfer of all time and among the top 10 in history, male or female.
“She was our Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Nancy Lopez all rolled into one,” Whitworth told Golfweek magazine.
At her peak in the 1960s, Ms. Wright was such a popular draw that sponsors refused to hold tournaments unless they knew she would appear. In 1963, she won 13 of the 32 tournaments she entered. Only one male golfer — Byron Nelson in 1945 — has won more tournaments in a single year.
But Ms. Wright’s influence on the game went beyond the number of her victories. She had a swing and style of play that approached the platonic ideal of golfing perfection.
Nelson, Tom Watson and other golfers said the same.
Using a driver with a small, wooden clubhead, Ms. Wright could routinely drive the ball 225 to 250 yards. “I can outhit many men — much to their embarrassment,” she told Time magazine in 1963.
When reporters called her the “female Arnold Palmer,” she angrily replied, “Palmer and I don’t have a thing in common. I have a classic swing. His is all wrong. He’s just lucky he’s strong as an ox.”
At first, Ms. Wright was a one-dimensional player, with an ability to drive the ball for distance but weak in what golfers call the “short game” of chipping and putting. But as she polished her all-around game, she became almost unbeatable. In 1967, the Golf Writers Association of America named her the game’s best putter — among both men and women.
She described the fundamentals of her game in a 1962 book, “Play Golf the Wright Way,” in which she detailed the importance of the grip, foot placement, backswing, balance — and, of course, endless practice: “You will be better if you practice and you won’t be if you don’t.”
The one thing she couldn’t practice, however, was the pressure of competition. She finished two major tournaments — the 1962 Titleholders Championship and the 1964 U.S. Women’s Open — tied for first place at the end of 72 holes. In both cases, she was tied with Ruth Jessen.
In the 18-hole playoff round for the Titleholders Championship, Ms. Wright birdied three of the first five holes and never trailed, shooting a 69 to Jessen’s 72. Two years later, in the Women’s Open, she won again, firing a 70 to top Jessen by two strokes in the playoff.
“At my best I would go into what I called a ‘fog,’ ” she told Golf Digest in 2017. “I never thought of it as the ‘zone’ you hear about today, though maybe it was something like that. It was a mental state where I could concentrate really well and play with a greater confidence than usual.”
Ms. Wright was in that state in 1964, when she shot a final round of 62 at a tournament in Midland, Tex. — the lowest score in women’s competition up to that point. Trailing by 10 strokes as she entered the last round, she ended up tied for the lead with her record-setting performance and then won the tournament in a sudden-death playoff.
“I don’t usually emote much in public,” she told Sports Illustrated in 1964, “but for some reason, after the first few holes, I’d grin and laugh each time I tapped a putt in. And the crowd really seemed to be with me. I’ve never felt so much electricity. Between shots the gallery was so quiet I could hear myself breathe.”
Mary Kathryn Wright was born Feb. 14, 1935, in San Diego. Her mother was a homemaker, her father a lawyer who introduced her to golf as a child.
She was 5-foot-8 at age 11 — “The kids at school called me ‘Moose.’ I had a terrible inferiority complex” — and found solace in golf. On Saturdays, her mother drove 125 miles each way so her daughter could take lessons from Harry Pressler, a teacher Ms. Wright credited with developing her smooth swing.
“Golf is just one thing to me,’’ she said in 1993. “It is the pure pleasure of swinging the golf club.”
As a girl, Ms. Wright sometimes gave demonstrations in San Diego at night, with the course illuminated by lights. The local pro would tell her, “Mickey, show the people how you can make the ball disappear,” she recalled to Golf Digest in 2017, “and I would drive the ball so it went out of sight, still climbing as it passed beyond the lights. Over the years, when I needed a big drive, I’d whisper to myself, ‘Make it disappear.’ ”
As a 19-year-old amateur in 1954, Ms. Wright was the final-round playing partner at the U.S. Women’s Open with the champion, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who had won gold medals in track at the 1932 Olympic Games before helping launch women’s golf as a professional sport.
Ms. Wright left Stanford University after one year to pursue a professional golf career. As she reached her 30s, he began to battle chronic wrist and foot injuries. She stepped away from the game from time to time and won her final tournament in 1973. As late as 1979 — playing in tennis shoes because golf shoes hurt her feet — she lost in a tournament playoff to Nancy Lopez.
Ms. Wright occasionally played in senior tournaments in the 1980s and 1990s. Even when she was in her late 50s, other golfers could identify her simply by the solid sound of her club striking the ball.
“I had seen old film clips of her swing,” Hall of Fame golfer Patty Sheehan told Sports Illustrated in 2000. “It looked the same: very fluid, very powerful — flawless. You could see she was in love with golf and dedicated to hitting a golf ball purely. She had these old clubs, old as dirt, and it was clear they were her best friends. She had an inner confidence. I picked up on that very strongly. You knew that ultimately all those wins came from something deep inside.”
Ms. Wright used the same set of Wilson clubs from 1963 until her final tournament in 1995. She donated the clubs and other artifacts to the U.S. Golf Association Museum in Liberty Corner, N.J., where she is the only woman with a dedicated room. She was also elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame and the LPGA Hall of Fame.
In later years, Ms. Wright lived alongside a golf course in Port St. Lucie, Fla. She had no immediate survivors.
She looked on modern-day golf with some disdain: She thought the longer shafts and larger clubfaces of today’s clubs took much of the skill and artistry out of the game. She was particularly adept at using the “long” irons, such as the notoriously hard-to-control 2-iron.
“I could hit it so well,” Ms. Wright told the New York Times in 2012. “I used to say the second-greatest feeling in the world was a high 2-iron to a well-trapped green.’’
There was only one feeling that was better, she said: “Winning.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries