October 1, 1999
Ben Wright, the former golf commentator for CBS, recently published his autobiography, Good Bounces & Bad Lies (Sleeping Bear Press, $24.95 SRP).
At first I thought this book would be a long rant by a bitter old fool.
I was mostly wrong.
There are sizable traces of bitterness in some portions of this book. Nonetheless, Wright appears to have released most of the demons that would have otherwise marred this predominantly fond look back at a long career in golf entertainment.
John Bentley-Wright had a tough childhood, especially during and just after World War II. This part of the book was frankly the most interesting. In biographies and autobiographies one usually looks for hints of the adult in the recollections of childhood. Until Wright describes his first encounter with Ben Hogan at the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie, however, it’s hard to determine any seminal moments that gave a significant hint of the adult to come.
Wright does well in recounting his history in British journalism and the zigzag path that led to his career at CBS. His British predecessors in televised golf, such as Henry Longhurst, were “characters” in a very real sense. Those who are squeamish at tales of exploits in an alcoholic daze will not appreciate these and several other segments of the book.
Other parts are great fun. Wright recounts a fabulous history of the Ryder Cup, including Jack Nicklaus’ role in expanding the competition beyond the British Isles to the rest of Europe. Wright properly credits Nicklaus with saving the Cup from oblivion. Wright returns the favor with his chapter on the Masters, focused on Nicklaus’ wins in 1975 and 1986.
Parts of the book were jarring, nonetheless.
Wright seems to accept some responsibility for having four failed marriages, but only partially so. His segment on the intervention by his friends that led to his stay at the Betty Ford clinic seems appreciative of their efforts. He now understands he needed the help. On the other hand, he’s obviously uncomfortable with labeling himself as a recovering alcoholic.
I was primarily interested in how Wright dealt with the LPGA press debacle that eventually led to his dismissal from CBS. While not everything Wright says rings completely true, it certainly reads like he believes his version.
Wright’s fascinating and painful retelling includes his subsequent interview fiasco with Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated magazine, and a long talk in 1998 with Valerie Helmbreck, the original reporter on the story for The News-Journal.
At the time of the incident I wondered how Wright could have found himself in this mess. Perhaps he forgot that by the time Ms. Helmbreck had her story, he was no longer a journalist and instead was an entertainer, with much to lose if he wasn’t careful. Based on his re-telling, it was a disaster waiting to happen.
There is much else to the book to recommend it. One forgets at times how old Wright is. His attitudes toward women, alcohol, and his ideas of a good time are shaped by his generation. This book will remind readers of an earlier time in the PGA Tour, when fitness and family took a back seat to babes and booze. Wright is clearly fond of the old days, but recognizes that they are unlikely to recur, with good reason.
Wright seems wistful at times. He clearly would like to return to golf broadcasting, but thus far the networks have not shown any real interest in having this prodigal son return. Perhaps this interesting book will help bring him back.