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How The 1986 Masters Helped Wright Thompson Understand His Dad10:06
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The Nelson Bridge takes golfers from Augusta’s 13th tee towards the fairway. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
The Nelson Bridge takes golfers from Augusta’s 13th tee towards the fairway. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Wright Thompson Jr. is a Senior Writer for ESPN. His dad, Wright Thompson Sr., was a lawyer who could occasionally be found out on the golf course.

"He used to say, ‘You can either be a good lawyer or a good golfer. If your lawyer is a 0 handicap, you need a new lawyer, because they don’t give a damn about your case,’ " Wright Jr. remembers.

Wright Thompson Sr. also told his son stories about his own childhood on a farm in Bentonia, Mississippi.

Wright Thompson Sr. holding his son. (Courtesy Wright Thompson Jr.)
Wright Thompson Sr. holding his son. (Courtesy Wright Thompson Jr.)

"He described a really rural life that, to me growing up in the ’80s, sounded not just from another decade, but from another century," Wright Jr. says. "He had three brothers, and they all had their own horse that they would ride to town."

Wright Jr.’s grandfather, a man known as "Big Frazier," was tough on his kids. Wright Sr. was a good student and a star quarterback in high school. But his father only saw his shortcomings. 

"My father knew the dad that he had and knew the things he loved dearly about him," Wright Jr. says. "He also knew his flaws. And I think that when he created himself as a father, the kind of father he was going to be, it was based on both of those." 

Wright Thompson Sr. showed his son what kind of father he was on a family trip to Destin, Florida.

"And we were walking up and down the beach and all around all day," Wright Jr. says. "And I had a stuffed animal, Sweetie. He was a rabbit. And, you know, he was also sort of the color of sand — which becomes a problem. Because we get back to the condo, and Sweetie’s missing. And so my dad went and combed the sand."

Dad searched for hours, looking for Sweetie.

"Sweetie had a rough battle that night with the sand, but was discovered," Wright Jr. says. "And he came home with the stuffed animal."

When Wright Jr. got a little older, his dad would spring him from school so they could go fishing. They watched every James Bond movie. He lost count of how many times they watched "The Guns of Navarone."

"And I just always knew that he was gonna be a rock," Wright Jr. says.

Charge Of The Golden Bear

On April 13, 1986, when Wright Jr. was just 9, his dad called him into the room where he was watching the fourth and final round of the Masters.

"And he was just like, ‘You need to watch this. You’ll never forget this. This is unbelievable,’ " Wright Jr. remembers.

Jack Nicklaus shot a 30 on the back nine to win by one stroke. Wright Jr. remembers that his father cried watching the 46-year-old Nicklaus become the oldest Masters winner. It was his sixth and final win at Augusta.

"And I remember how emotional he was — and not really understanding why," Wright Jr. says.

It would be more than a decade before Wright Jr. would begin to understand the seed his dad had planted.

After that day, Wright Jr. and his dad watched the Masters together every year. They bonded over the tournament, even if it was never as dramatic as it was in 1986.

And Wright Sr. began to talk about how nice it would be to visit Augusta National Golf Course and see the azaleas and the clubhouse and Amen Corner in person.

In 1996, Wright Jr. went off to college three states away. In April of his freshman year, he watched a 21-year-old Tiger Woods win the Masters. He called his dad, who said ...

" ‘Dude, are you watching this?’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ I remember that very clearly."

Wright Jr. says picturing his dad in the same room where they had watched the last 11 Masters made it feel like home wasn’t quite so far away.

Wright Jr. started covering the Masters in 2003 as a writer for the Kansas City Star.

"You get to see the stuff that was always sort of elusively just out of frame," he says.

His dad wanted to know about everything.

"I suddenly had information for him that he didn’t have," Wright Jr. says. "I knew stuff he didn’t know." 

Stuff like what’s on the tables at Augusta National’s clubhouse restaurant.

"I don’t know if you know what Durkee’s is," Wright Jr. says. "It’s a sandwich condiment. My grandmother and mother would not eat a sandwich ever without Durkee’s on it. It is a very, very Southern thing. So anyway, when I called my dad and was like, ‘There’s Durkee’s on the table!’ it just — you know, his head ... pfff ... it exploded."

Wright Jr. and his dad talked about visiting the course together, maybe even during the Masters.

"That was always the plan," Wright Jr. says.

A Plan Delayed

But later that year, they got some bad news.

"He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer," Wright Jr. says. "He described getting that news. And was like, ‘I know what the odds are on this particular one, and this is not good.’ " 

So Wright Jr. and his dad decided to make some trips. They went fishing in Arkansas. They talked some more about going to Augusta. But then his dad started treatment.

Wright Sr. went out of his way to cheer up the other patients. Especially the ones who had to endure the treatments without family or friends present.

"The guy was a walking party," Wright Jr. says. "Like, if you had to describe him with one noun, I think it would be ‘ringleader.’ "

Everyone in the ward knew him by name.

"I mean, he was a warrior," Wright Jr. says. "No effing pity, no martyrdom, no ‘Woe is me,’ no complaining, no giving up."

Wright Thompson Sr. fought hard for several months.

“I just always knew that he was gonna be a rock.”

Wright Thompson Jr.

"And then he beat it," Wright Jr. says. "Which is just — no one beats it."

Wright Jr. got the good news in April 2004, while he was at Augusta covering the Masters.

"And so I was like, ‘Let’s go somewhere,’ " Wright Jr. says.

The obvious choice would have been to meet in Augusta at the golf course Wright Sr. wanted so badly to visit. But the remission made them feel like they had all the time in the world.

"Doesn’t everything lull us into thinking we have all the time in the world?" Wright Jr. says. "And so we decided to go down to Destin, Florida — the same place where he’d rescued Sweetie. And that was just a really magical trip. You know, I brought him a windbreaker from the Augusta pro shop, and we talked very specifically about going to the Masters."

Just three months later, Wright Jr. got a call from his mother.

"It came back fast, man," he says.

Wright Jr.’s dad was too sick for him to travel that summer. On Sept. 29, 2004, Wright Thompson Sr. died. He was just 58 years old.

Azaleas bloom on the Augusta National Golf Course. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Azaleas bloom on the Augusta National Golf Course. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Unpacking The Message

"After my dad died, my mom started finding flashlights all over the house," Wright Jr. says. "And she realized that he had gone to Walmart one day and just bought every size flashlight they had and hidden them all over the house. Because he knew he was dying and didn’t want her to ever be scared of the dark."

Wright Jr. was wracked with guilt that he never brought his dad to see the azaleas, the rolling hills and the lob-lolly pines of Augusta National Golf Course.

"I got worse before I got better, you know? I struggled for a long time," Wright Jr. says.

But in addition to the flashlights for his mom, Wright Sr. left something for his son to discover. The following April, Wright Jr. returned to Augusta to cover the Masters.

"I took a pair of his shoes and walked the course in them," Wright Jr. says. "Which is weird in hindsight and sort of oddly pathetic, now that I say it out loud."

Wallace Wright Thompson in her Masters onesie. (Courtesy Wright Thompson Jr.)
Wallace Wright Thompson in her Masters onesie. (Courtesy Wright Thompson Jr.)

Wright Jr. says at first those return trips to Augusta made his regret even stronger. But then he realized that wasn’t fair to his father.

"The more I go back, you realize that focusing on the end of the experience is not only stupid and counterproductive and leads you nowhere, it ultimately is the greatest insult to the best parts of that person who you wish were still here," Wright Jr. says.  

Wright Jr. says with every return visit, his guilt subsided.

"My trips to Augusta feel like an extension of the best of my father, not some weird extended funeral to celebrate the worst," he says.

He began to understand why the 1986 Masters was so important to his dad.

"Together watching the triumph of Jack over time and all of these big existential forces, we had a moment that was so loaded with meaning that he didn’t even have to explain it," Wright Jr. says. "And I think it was designed to just plant this stuff so I could unpack it in my own time."

Returning To Augusta

Wright Jr. got married in 2006. He and his wife began thinking about starting a family.

So, after the end of the following Masters, he stopped into the Augusta National golf shop.

"I purchased a onesie," Wright Jr. says. "It’s an Augusta National onesie. And it was my own down payment on the idea that I would learn from him — both in how to be a father and also in how not to wait too long."

"The Cost Of These Dreams" by Wright Thompson
"The Cost Of These Dreams" by Wright Thompson

A decade after buying that onesie, Wright Jr. became a dad. But a trip with his daughter to Augusta this year is out of the question.

"We’d get thrown out, because she likes to make noise and run around, and the patrons are not allowed to run," Wright Jr. says. 

Wright Jr. says he’ll take his daughter to Augusta when she’s a little older. But in the meantime ...

"We’re building a little place in Montana where we can fish all the time," he says. "And one of the big motivations for me in doing that is this isn’t gonna be something that I’m gonna do later. You can’t ever count on ‘later.’ This is something we’re gonna do now." 

One day, years from now, Wright Jr.’s daughter will cast a fly to a wild Montana trout or sink a long putt at Amen Corner. And she’ll think about her dad — and her granddad — and how they planted seeds that she came to appreciate much, much later.

Wright Thompson’s new book is a collection of essays called “The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business." The essay about his father is called "Holy Ground."

This segment aired on April 6, 2019.

Related:

Gary Waleik Producer, Only A Game
Gary Waleik is a producer for Only A Game.

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