The voice and the words remain distinctive: lugubrious, pretentious in a campy way, purposefully archaic, Churchillian with cheek. He tells tales of being "vetted" by Clifford Roberts, of former associates being "spectacularly addled," of a certain "devious little mafioso," of "remedial" breakfasts and behavior "sophomoric in the extreme." Foremost is "my perilous predicament as a pariah." It's still fun to listen to Ben Wright.
It's not nearly as much fun to be Ben Wright, not since the day three years ago this week, at the McDonald's LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del., when Wright, then a golf analyst for CBS, volunteered his rough-cut thoughts on lesbianism on the women's tour to a newspaper reporter. The series of events that followed—his emphatic on-camera denial that he had made the controversial comments, a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story that provided evidence that his denial was a lie and Wright's subsequent indefinite suspension from the network—has thrown him into the darkest period of his 65 years. "I was so bloody stupid; stupid, naive and weak," he said last week, spitting out the words that have taken him this long to say publicly. "A day doesn't go by that I don't regret how I reacted."
The reporter who quoted Wright, Valerie Helmbreck, does not believe her behavior was stupid or weak, though she does confess that she was naive. "I can look back on all that happened and know I did the right thing," she says. "I did my job. I didn't lie. But some people did, and everyone involved paid a price for it."
The mostly ignoble aftermath of the 30-minute conversation between Wright and Helmbreck links them as tightly as any Ben and Valerie since the Hogans. One behaved badly, and one behaved well. One has been vilified, the other vindicated. One's ashamed, while the other's proud. Both were pawns on a corporate battlefield, were easy targets in the often mean-spirited court of public opinion and are still trying to put the incident behind them. Both gave up their old jobs-Wright by force and Helmbreck by choice—and neither is happy about it.
Clearly the more devastated is Wright, though the public whipping and exile have seemingly not taken a physical toll. Since spending a month at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., undergoing alcohol rehabilitation in April 1996, Wright has worked with a trainer and dropped from 310 pounds to 250, and he hopes to shed 30 more. He's playing a lot of golf—his handicap is down to 10—and his face, bloated in the months following his suspension, is tanned and smooth.
The psychological effect is more pronounced. Wright admits to suffering from bouts of deep depression and a lingering sense of shame that often makes him reluctant to go out in public. Most days and nights are spent in his chalet-style house in Flat Rock, N.C. There he sits alone in the spacious living room with the 20-foot ceiling and flicks through a mental slide show of his troubles. There is the ongoing divorce from his fourth wife, Kitty, who left him in November 1996. An IRS audit is pending. Early Times, the 11-year-old Arabian gelding whom Wright's 16-year old daughter, Margaret, planned to ride in this summer's Youth Nationals, recently died of colic. A financial downsizing is necessary, and Wright must sell his 67-acre tree farm in South Carolina as well as his second home, on the golf course he designed, Cliff's Valley Country Club, in Travelers Rest, S.C. The backdrop for what he might call this "calamitous collage" is what he refers to as "the incident," which transformed a man who had marketed himself on dust jackets as THE VOICE OF GOLF into THE BOOB ON THE TUBE, which is how Wright was portrayed in a front-page headline in the New York Post after his comments in Wilmington. "It's quite incredible, the streak I'm on," says Wright. "I feel as if something or someone is getting even with me."
After telling Helmbreck, a reporter for the News Journal, that, among other things, "lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf," Wright found himself in a firestorm. He was summoned to CBS headquarters in New York, where demonstrators from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Organization for Women were picketing the building because of his remarks. In a six-hour meeting Wright says company lawyers and top executives hammered out a cynical damage-control strategy in which Wright was to deny having made the statements and to discredit Helmbreck, who had taken notes but not used a tape recorder. "I always had a feeling it would come back to haunt me," says Wright. When the SI story came out in December '95, it did. When reminded that in the story he characterized Helmbreck as divorced, involved in a custody battle and possibly even a lesbian with a gay-rights agenda, even though Helmbreck and her husband had been happily married for 15 years and had three children, Wright winces. "That was the reaction of a selfish, desperate man," he says. "I'm not proud of that."
After he was suspended, in January '96, Wright went into a tail-spin, raging at friends and associates, blaming them for his plight, while eating and drinking to excess. By April his condition had deteriorated to the point that friends (including former CBS colleagues Frank Chirkinian, Jim Nantz and Pat Summerall) and Wright's wife and daughter organized an intervention at Wright's house. After being told of behavior that he couldn't remember, and hearing his daughter's tearful pleas, Wright began a 28-day stay at the rehab center.
"I've let go of a lot of bitterness just because I realize I have to go on," he says. "I'm a very willful person—that's why I've had four wives—but I can also employ that willfulness to change for the better." Professionally, he has done an infomercial, voice-overs and projects for his production company. He attends a few golf outings a month, usually as the dinner speaker. The audiences are generally older and golfy, and they laugh when Wright tells stories about how he flushed his false teeth down the toilet before a telecast, or how Seve Ballesteros beat him over nine holes while hitting every shot from his knees.
Wright's still tormented, though, by what happened three years ago on the day he was ordered to leave Wilmington and report to CBS headquarters. On the train to Manhattan, Wright remembers thinking that Tom Watson, in 1993, told Golf Digest that lesbians hurt the LPGA, and little had been made of it. "I thought, What the hell is all the fuss about?" he says. "I wasn't as concerned about the story as everybody else. It may have been a little controversial, but it was true."