When Jon “JC” Wright became one of the first Native Americans in the country to earn his PGA of America card in 2009, he didn’t stop there. No, being a pioneer and a role model in the golf industry wasn’t quite enough for Wright, the director of golf at Lookout Mountain Golf Club at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort.
“I’ve always wanted to give something back to the Native American community, and to the game that got me here,” said the 40-year-old Wright, who grew up in South Dakota on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
“In that regard, I went back to my people, and elsewhere, to see if I could get a few other (Native Americans) involved in the golf business.”
While Wright was just one in a handful of Native Americans to originally get there PGA of America cards, the number is growing, according to the PGA of America, which now lists 74 Native Americans among its member base of over 28,000.
Yes, Native Americans still make up small fraction of a percentage. But Sandy Cross, the senior director of diversity and inclusion for the PGA of America, said minorities are a big part of the overall plan.
“The composition of our PGA of America membership continues to evolve each year, and we’re excited and encouraged about becoming more reflective of the consumer base who play, and aspires to play, this special game,” Cross said. “We’re tremendously proud of our Native American PGA Professionals and what they do each and every day to bring the magic of the game to individuals from all backgrounds.”
Wright, who works for Hilton in a deal that is affiliated with Scottsdale-based Troon, has personally helped five of his tribal members find financial avenues to attend the San Diego Golf Academy (now called the Golf Academy of America), a certified 16 month program to attain an Associate’s Degree in Golf Management. But he added that Native Americans still have a long way to go, “although 74, wow, that’s very encouraging.”
“That’s certainly more (Native Americans) than I would have thought,” Wright said. “At the same time, it makes me feel good about the career path we’re on, and even though we’re not there yet in terms of numbers, that’s the goal, to get more (Native Americans) involved in golf.”
Who would have guessed this could ever happen to Wright, who grew up as the youngest of four children in a family that was raised by a single mother with not a golfer in sight? Or that JC would have the right stuff to combat the social ills often associated with life on a reservation?
“I grew up among a lot of good people, but not a lot of opportunity,” said Wright, who always has cast a big shadow from his 6-foot-5 frame. “All we had back then was baseball, basketball and football, and I loved to hunt.
“But, believe it or not, all that alcoholism and drug abuse and other problems associated with the reservation, they motivated me into a positive light.”
And so Wright, a distant relative of Chief Hollow Horn Bear, the revered leader associated with the Rosebud Sioux who actually fought alongside the legendary Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in historical battles against the U.S. Calvary, did what he could to escape what might have been a lifelong sentence. That journey began with an attempt (that never panned out) to walk on the football team Black Hills State University, and included a short stint as a dealer at a Native American-owned casino.
It was at that casino job where JC’s social skills finally hit the jackpot, as he was befriended by several of the area’s ranchers, who ultimately got him into golf. Despite never playing the game until he got out of college, Wright ended up managing a little nine-hole “pasture golf course” called Prairie Hills.
“I ran that little club for a year, and even with all the challenges, I got to be a pretty good golfer,” Wright reported. “I mean, my clubs didn’t really fit me – they were way too small – and it was all pretty new.
“But somehow in the back of my mind I kept thinking about this golf school that a rancher had told me about in Arizona and that kind of ended up being my salvation.”
The year was 2000, and Wright crammed everything he had – a few clothes, his second-hand clubs and his hunting rifle – into his car and headed for Phoenix. After arriving, he joined Troon at Whirlwind Golf Club at Wild Horse Pass. He also saved some money, applied for grants, enrolled in the San Diego Golf Academy in Chandler.
“I never dreamed I could get that far, but all of a sudden I’m 25, in the golf business, and actually closer than I’d ever been to my goal of being a Class A PGA professional,” Wright said of his great adventure. “In 2002, I made it reality when I got my first real job as an assistant golf professional at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club.”
A year later he passed his PAT and thereafter earned his P.G.A Class A professional status in 2009. In 2014 he got his chance to “sit in the #1 seat” moving to the Hilton Pointe Tapatio Cliffs’ Lookout Mountain as its director of golf.
Along the way Wright has made quite an impression, like at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, where he worked for both Garrett Wallace, who was then the general manager, and Brady Wilson, the club’s current GM, as a head professional. Needless to say, Wallace and Wilson are huge Wright fans.
“You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who has met JC who doesn’t like him and even harder pressed to find someone JC has met that he doesn’t remember,” said Wallace, currently the general manager at Troon Country Club in Scottsdale. “Back in the day at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, we had a pretty impressive group of members, and from professional athletes to doctors to business leaders.. They all loved JC.”
Wilson, too, said there are no wrongs to Wright.
“As a person, JC is a really a superior guy – down to earth, great values and culturally still very connected to his community back in Rosebud as well as the national Native American scene,” Wilson said. “He takes a lot of pride in doing the right thing, was a big part of the changes we made here at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, and you will never find a guy who works harder.
“He is a total professional and a role model. He’s what you’d want your kids to grow up to be.”
Wright’s current boss, Ron Simon, the general manager at the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs, heartily agrees.
“JC possesses a warm, inclusive style of management, as he has matured into an outstanding leader who is respected by his peers and direct reports,” Simon said. “He’ll never shy away from a challenge and also has a keen sense of golf-related marketing.”
It’s been a steady yet somewhat meteoric rise in the business for Wright. Even JC has to stop occasionally to catch his breath.
“I wanted to be a role model just to show other (Native American) kids how to get it done,” he said. “And one of my main messages was: you don’t have to be a golfer to be in golf.
“So in the end I think it’s important that I have succeeded as a kind of trend setter among my people, because I’m not sure what could have happened had I failed. I mean, Notah Begay has done a lot nationally, and Sam McCracken from Nike has really supported Native Americans, too. That’s really the kind of impact that I’d eventually like to have.”
Despite his hectic schedule, Wright, a bachelor, finds time to golf with his staff at Lookout Mountain, as well as occasionally take golf trips with them “to bond outside of the workplace.” And he gives a lot of credit for his management and team building skills to Troon, “for getting me to where I am.”
“It’s been a phenomenal experience working for Troon,” Wright said. “The way Troon trusted me really helped me to grow and flourish.
“In fact, I really believe if I had worked for any other golf management group, it just wouldn’t have been the same outcome.”
As for his golf game, “If I can keep it in the 70s, I’m always happy with that,” said Wright, who at one time tried to play professionally. And to that end he likes to have a little fun with golfing buddies like Frank Johnson, the former Phoenix Suns player and coach who now is in the health care industry.
“Oh, anybody would love to play with JC because he likes to jab,” Johnson chuckled of a relationship that began years ago. “But JC does it in a very quiet and effective way, not like other athletes I’ve played with, so he’s fun to be around.
“But the thing that’s really cool about JC is that he’s always there for you – on or off the golf course. And I really admire the way he still is connected to his people back in South Dakota, and how he’s always doing something for the Native American community.”
Wright admitted that there have been challenges, but he’s proud he’s met them at every corner while keeping an eye on the future.
“I always felt like, that as a Native American, I had to work harder than the guy beside me – that my carts had to be cleaner, that my work wardrobe had to be neater,” he said. “But that’s how you get ahead – hard work.
“I think my strength is that I love to be around people and learn about their cultures and where they’ve been and where they’re going. I think if I have a weakness, it’s that I care too much and that can be a fault. I guess in the final analysis, those things have helped to open some doors for others. But if it’s possible, I want to help open even more.”