A golfer without a win can endure the grind of the PGA tour only so long before he begins to hallucinate. He sees himself a Trappist monk, a forest ranger, a short-order cook. Anything except a professional golfer.
Mike Morley, a tall soft-spoken 29-year-old from Minot (rhymes with why-not), N. Dak., used to think a lot about farming. It has been six long lean years since Morley joined the tour, "forever" he calls it, and until this year all the books show for his efforts are two wins on the satellite tour in 1973 and more Monday qualifying than he cares to think about.
Suddenly, though, Morley has begun to move. After warming up in Arizona with a 13th and a 21st, he earned $21,000 and national television exposure by coming in second to Ben Crenshaw in the Crosby. He tied for fourth in Hawaii and was 15th at the Hope. Through the Andy Williams last week, where he tied for third, Morley had earned $47,680 and stood third on the money list. In the first six tournaments of 1976, he picked up more money than he had earned in any year since he turned pro.
"I've been getting better, making a little more money every year," he said recently, "but at times it has seemed like it was happening awful slow. I saw guys breaking out all around me, winning tournaments and turning into good players. Sometimes I wondered what I was doing out here, whether I was ever going to be good." "Good" by Morley's definition is playing well enough tee to green to be frequently putting for birdies from inside 20 feet, often in contention and, once in a while, winning. "That's a good player," he says. "A great player is something else."
February 23, 1976
Morley joined the tour in 1970, a good college player from Arizona State who had been an All-America twice and who, in 1966, at the end of his sophomore year, had finished eighth in the U.S. Amateur. He was 6'2" and 145 pounds. "When I was a kid," he says, "I liked Tony Lema because he was a tall player with a big upright swing like mine."
Tall, skinny but inexperienced. To say that the North Dakota golf season is measured in hours is only a mild exaggeration. Until Morley was 17 and moved with his recently divorced mother from Minot to LaJolla, Calif., he had never played golf for more than a few months a year. He competed on the Minot High School golf team for a month or so in the spring, and he entered some tournaments around North Dakota and Minnesota in the summer, but he never experienced the big-time junior amateur circuit where young golfers of promise usually cut their competitive teeth.
"Partly it was because of the expense," he says, "but partly it was because I didn't care to play that much."
The trouble is that Minot is a nice place to be in the summer, something that cannot be said about most of the rest of the year. A kid has to cram a lot of living into a summer. He can hunt for a while in the fall, and he can play all the three-cushion billiards he wants through the long, long winter but for almost everything else, it is summer or never in Minot.
"There are kids now on the tour," says Morley, "who have played competitive golf year-round since they were 12, and who are so good they can make $50,000 at 22 or 23 without blinking an eye."
Gary Koch might disagree. Koch, a two-time Walker Cup player who is 23 and a rookie on the tour, described his first Monday qualifying experience in Golf World magazine. He was one of 66 players competing for 11 available spots in the Tucson Open. Playing early, Koch shot a 69, and feeling very good about it he stowed his clubs in his car and was having lunch when he learned he had to go back out on the course. "It turns out," he wrote, "there were six scores better than 69 and 10 players at 69, so 10 of us would have to play off for five spots."
No amount of amateur experience can make such a moment less startling, but six years of that sort of thing can make a farmer out of a potentially good golfer. For five years Morley got by financially, sometimes with the backing of sponsors from home, sometimes on his own. Then, last year, he seemed finally to have broken through. By the end of May, helped by a tie for second at Jacksonville, he had earned more than $35,000 and was well on his way to the top 60 and the blessed exempt status that goes with it. But he had also played in, or attempted to play in, 18 of the first 20 tournaments on the schedule, traveling from site to site by car mostly, with his wife Janis and their 2½-year-old daughter Michelle. "I was pretty well spent," he says matter-of-factly. At Memphis, in the last week of May, he shot 80 in the opening round and withdrew. He went home, and there he stayed for the next four weeks, missing Atlanta, the Kemper, Philadelphia and the U.S. Open—$861,000 worth of tournaments.
He went back to work with the Western Open and played 11 more tournaments before the end of the season, but he never finished higher than 15th and he made only $5,397 more in all those months. He says of his last two tournaments, the Kaiser, where he tied for 40th, and San Antonio, where he tied for 63rd, "I was trying as hard as I could and playing bad." Dr. Gil Morgan finished 60th on the tour with $42,772. Morley, 64th, was $1,670 short of an exemption.
"As it turned out, last year was a good lesson," says Morley. "I had set a goal of making the top 60, but I realize I hadn't set it high enough. When I won a bunch of money in the spring, I lost my incentive. So this year my goal is to make $100,000. I think I can do it."
To that end Morley left home in November and drove south to Phoenix, where he worked for a few weeks with Joe Nichols, a teaching pro at Coronado golf course. In addition, he quit drinking and smoking. "For a week every time I wanted a cigarette I went out and ran," he says. "I just about killed myself, but at the end of a week I didn't want to smoke anymore. Or run."
Friends say Morley, who now weighs 165, is 30 yards longer off the tee than he was a couple of years ago. He is also hitting the ball straight. "One reason I've never played in the U.S. Open is I couldn't drive straight," he says.
"He's hitting it well," says Clyde Mangum, a tour official. "I saw him hit a two-iron to the 16th at Cypress Point in the Crosby that was so pure it went straight over the flag. He wasn't using the wrong club, he just hit it so pure."
Mike's second-place finish at the Crosby was the high and the low of his year to date. I was so wrapped up in trying to win the tournament," he says, "that for a while after, a little while, I was down. But then I thought about it and realized it was pretty good."
It looks as though North Dakota has lost a wheat farmer.