Ace in the Hole: Battling Alzheimer's, Benton man hits 7th hole-in-one

Josh Briggs
Staff Writer

Golf is a game of inches. Whether, driving, chipping or putting, being in the correct spot on the course can be the difference in shooting the round of a lifetime or a forgettable outing with friends.
Golf is also a game of memory skills. Remembering distances from the previous time. Remembering which club to hit from 140 yards away.
For one Benton man, golf comes natural, despite a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.
Tommy Wright has been playing the sport since his teenage years. Growing up on Longhills Golf Course in Benton, Wright has been a household name around the venue since the beginning.
However, the Benton High School graduate has been talked about more in recent weeks since he now has seven holes-in-one — the last one coming Sept. 19 on hole 8, a 92-yarder — weeks ahead of his 77th birthday.
Wright used a pitching wedge.
"The last time I played that hole I hit four balls in the water," Wright said with a laugh. "This time it went up, and pretty as it could be, came down and right in the hole."
Wright's son, Todd Wright, said all he saw was his father's hands go up in the air.
"It bounced once and went straight in," Todd said. "That is the first one I have seen him hit. It was amazing and I loved watching it. I grew up out here, too, in the Junior Golf Program, and to see that was awesome. It was a great experience."
Wright's first hole-in-one came Sept. 28, 1958, at the age of 17, on the original hole 5 at Longhills.
"I sliced it," Wright said in a 1958 article published in the then Benton Courier. "It looked like it was going into the trees, but it bounced back to the right. I heard it hit the pin. I couldn't see it go in, but I heard the other four players yelling."
Wright mastered his craft on the golf course as a teenager working as a caddie at Longhills.
"(Owner Bill Martin) asked me if I wanted to play because I was working up here every day," Wright said. "When I finished working he would let me play round after round."
Todd said his father would play a number of rounds each day, sharpening his skills.
"He got to play for free," Todd said.
Wright said he would average about 45 holes each time out.
Following high school graduation in 1959, Wright accepted a scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville — the first person in his family to attend college.
Todd was the second.
Following college, Wright joined the Arkansas National Guard, serving for six years, before starting a career in banking as an auditor — an occupation that would span 42 years until his retirement in 2004.
Wright's most recent ace comes 11 years after his sixth.
All of his holes-in-one have been hit at Longhills, including three on the original hole 5, two on the original hole 8, once on hole 10 and now the new hole 8.
"Hole 15, I have hit that thing a thousand times and would hit all around it — ping off the flag — and I have never got that one but I am still trying to," Wright said.
Martin and his wife, Berneice, opened the course in 1955, which later sold to Bud and Mary Jean Busken and Jeff and Sam Hamm.
In 2012, the course closed before gaining new life in 2016 after being purchased by Lindsey Management.
"He was so excited (when it reopened)," said Wright's wife, Wanda.
Wright and his son's — along with their wives — were the next to last group to play Longhills before it closed.
"When it reopened, he was the second group to go off," Wanda added.
Along with his collection of aces, Wright used to hold the record for lowest score on the first nine holes at Longhills — a 6-under 30. Wright tallied the score Aug. 11, 1968, finishing with a group best 5-under 67. He would birdie eight times that day.
Despite Wright's ability to maneuver Longhills with ease, his diagnosis of Alzheimer's has caused some issues in his everyday life.
Todd said that while his father can still play golf, sometimes remembering where things are around his home can be challenging.
"He was diagnosed five years ago," Wanda said. "It is progressing and progressing a little faster now. But when he plays golf, he can tell you so much about it. The doctors said that was the best thing for him. That and helping our son in his job."
Todd said when Wright is on the course he doesn't have to think about what club to hit.
"He still has the golfing down pat," Todd added.
Wright added that while he isn't able to play as often as he would like, he still enjoys getting back to Longhills and playing with his sons and close friends.