Greatness has a price

Tiger Woods takes time off, often weeks at a time, to be at his best for every event. Mickey Wright, among the best of all time, didn’t have that luxury.

Published November 1, 2006

On the day Mickey Wright had breast cancer surgery, Tiger Woods announced he would not play in the Tour Championship, skipping the PGA Tour’s season-ending event for the first time in his pro career.

Wright’s ordeal, of course, has nothing to do with Woods’ playing schedule, but the news Friday did serve as a reminder of just how much greatness takes its toll — and the repercussions.

Woods has completed one of the greatest years in golf history, winning eight times, including two major championships. He takes a six-tournament winning streak into the 2007 season.

But by skipping one of the marquee events on the PGA Tour schedule, Woods, who has played just 15 times on tour this year, no doubt has left some long faces in Atlanta, where play begins today.

Then there is Wright, the LPGA Hall of Famer who won 82 times, including 13 majors.

 “I don’t think she would have backed out of anything like that,” Louise Suggs, 83, who helped found the LPGA, won 58 times and is in the Hall of Fame, said from her St. Augustine home this week. “There was pressure on all of us to play all the time. To have a tournament and keep it the next year, we had to just play.”

Betsy Rawls, 78, also a Hall of Famer, had plenty of battles with Wright over the years, winning 55 LPGA tournaments, including eight majors.

“I loved playing with Mickey because it was so much fun to watch her swing the golf club,” Rawls said from Wilmington, Del.

Wright, 71, is considered by many the best female golfer in history. From 1959-68, she captured 79 of her 82 titles, 7.9 victories per year. In 1962, she played in 33 events, then 28 and 27. Woods has never played in more than 21.

“We had such few stars back in Mickey’s heyday. Of course, she was the biggest one, probably the biggest the LPGA had,” Rawls said.

“She was so much fun to watch. She had such a beautiful swing, just a classic golfer. The shots she hit had such character. She just hit quality shots all the time. It had a different sound. And it was picture perfect. Of course, she was a big draw.

“So it was a big blow to sponsors when Mickey did not play. And she did feel that responsibility. She loves the LPGA and respected the organization so much that she very seldom took a week off. And I think it took a toll on her. She was passionate about the game and cared so much about playing it well. It was stressful to her to play badly. She couldn’t go into a tournament and think I’ll just show up, go through the motions. She would never do that. She was bound and determined that she was going to win.”

 Woods, 31, plays so seldom because he, too, feels an obligation to be at his best. That means spacing his appearances while making sure he gets in the proper work on his game.

When he missed the cut at the U.S. Open this year, after a nine-week break because of the death of his father, he later said he should not have come back when he did.

But whether Woods feels or should feel the same obligation to his established tour as Wright did to the fledgling LPGA is debatable. There are those who would say Woods has done plenty for the PGA.

Purses have skyrocketed mostly because of him. And because the tour has such a strong financial base, his absence is not crippling, just disappointing.

 Wright  stopped playing full time at age 34 in 1969. In 1973, playing just eight times, she won the Dinah Shore (not a major until 1983), her last victory. In 1979, despite playing just seven times, she lost in a playoff to a second-year pro named Nancy Lopez in the Coca-Cola Classic.

“Tiger has to go all out, and Mickey was the same way,” said Rawls, who spoke to Wright after the surgery and reported she expects a full recovery.

“There is no telling how many more tournaments she would have won if she had been able to give it her all for 10 more years,” Rawls said. “But she knew herself well enough to know that she couldn’t do that. It took too much out of her to go through that week after week. Players today think they are tired after every tournament. But it’s not nearly as tiring if you’re not in contention. She was in contention every week of the year. It really wore her out. It’s much harder physically to play when you’re in contention now and then. She wasn’t going to go out there and not be the best golfer. So she retired early.”

Bob Harig can be reached at (727) 893-8806 or harig@sptimes.com.