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HOLY SMOKES! WALTER MORGAN HAS USED HEART AND A HOMEMADE SWING TO LIGHT UP THE SENIOR TOUR

Nov. 04, 1996
Nov. 04, 1996

Table of Contents
Nov. 4, 1996

Faces In The Crowd

HOLY SMOKES! WALTER MORGAN HAS USED HEART AND A HOMEMADE SWING TO LIGHT UP THE SENIOR TOUR

It's hard to get a rise out of Walter Morgan. There's a sense of
stillness and privacy about him, a quiet strength that one
suspects has been his most trusted companion in the cotton
fields of Georgia, the jungles of Vietnam and on the cart paths
of the Senior tour.

This is an article from the Nov. 4, 1996 issue

But Morgan can be aroused by his golf swing, a medley of
dipping, looping and lunging during which the only fixed point
is the stogie clenched firmly between his teeth. It's a swing
that would have Johnny Miller sketching furiously on the
Telestrator, and when Morgan is asked to describe it, a
chuckle--albeit a muted one--escapes his barrel chest.

A doer whose life has been defined by action and results, Morgan
had no idea what his swing looked like until he won his first
Senior event, the 1995 GTE Northwest Classic in Seattle. "Never
was curious about it," the soft-spoken Morgan says in the slow
cadence of the rural South. "Figured it couldn't be too bad if
the ball was going straight." Tournament officials sent him a
tape of the final round. Morgan watched the replay from his sofa
at home in New Bern, N.C., and was stunned. "I thought, Wow!
What a terrible swing," he says. "For a second, it was a little
depressing. Then I thought, This is all I have. It's me. I've
got to trust it."

Trusting himself is what Morgan has been doing throughout a life
that would have discouraged a less confident or adaptable man.
"Walter stays very calm most of the time," says his wife and
agent, Geraldine. "He has this belief that whatever happens, he
can handle it." Adds Morgan's caddie, Carl Benham, "He's in the
upper echelon as far as the emotional side. He's got a temper,
but you have to take him very deep. He's a solid person."

Morgan is so stubbornly self-reliant that being asked if he has
ever seen a swing coach or a sports psychologist almost prompts
another laugh. "The things you teach yourself are the things you
know best," he says. "You know yourself; other people don't. I
don't worry about the other people--what they say or what they
think."

If he had, Morgan would have surely dismissed a career in golf
as pure silliness. But although he didn't play his first round
until he was 27, Morgan has won three times on the Senior tour,
including twice this year. Going into this week's Emerald Coast
Classic, the 55-year-old Morgan, who used to pick cotton for two
cents a pound, is ninth on the 1996 money list, with $807,903,
and has a chance to top $1 million when the season concludes
next week at the $1.6 million Energizer Senior Tour Championship
at the Dunes Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

In March, Morgan defeated Gary Player in a playoff to win the
FHP Health Care Classic in Ojai, Calif. At the Ameritech Senior
Open in July, Morgan, with the ever-present Te-Amo Natural
jammed into the corner of his mouth, coolly outdueled Raymond
Floyd and John Bland to win by two strokes. "I knew from the
beginning that I was going to win out here," says Morgan. "It
was just a matter of time. There's nothing to be nervous about
because I know I can play."

And play and play and play. He entered 35 tournaments last year
and will play 37 this season. At one point he made 47 straight
starts. Morgan keeps at it because he's trying to work his way
up the career money list, on which the top 70 seniors are
exempt. It's an uphill battle. Every time an established
player--someone who spent decades on the regular Tour piling up
earnings--turns 50, a player like Morgan gets pushed back. Yet
Morgan doesn't find the quest to be a relentless, and possibly
fruitless, grind. "I just look forward to getting up every
morning," he says. "It's not a hard job."

Morgan has had those. He grew up in Haddock, Ga., 85 miles
southeast of Atlanta. He was the son of Evans, a heavy-equipment
operator, and Willie Pearl Morgan. Walter and his two brothers
made the kitchen their bedroom.

After school, from the time he was nine until he was 15, Walter
and his brothers picked cotton along with much of the black
community. His goal was to pick 100 pounds a session and make
$2, but he was never able to come close. "Pickin' cotton, that
will make you old quick," he says.

A star athlete at Maggie Califf High in Gray, Ga., Morgan found
that his best sport was baseball. The school didn't have a team,
so he played semipro ball, as a power-hitting outfielder, with
older men. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan is a distant cousin.

Morgan had only a brief brush with golf when he was growing up.
When his older brother, Evans Jr., acquired a secondhand
seven-iron and some balls while caddying at a nearby course, the
three Morgan brothers cut makeshift holes in a field and took
turns using the club. "We learned how to hit all kinds of shots
with that club," says Morgan. "But I never tried to play on a
real course."

When he graduated from high school in 1960, Morgan was good
enough at baseball to be offered grants to play at a few
colleges, including Tuskegee University. Morgan turned down the
offers, fearful that he might not be able to pay back the
grants. "At the time I was just afraid of going into debt," he
says. "I didn't get good advice. I regret not going to school
and playing baseball because I'm sure I could have played pro
ball."

Instead, Morgan enlisted in the Army. "It was a way out of the
cotton fields, a way to make some money, a way to see some of
the world," he says. It was also where he started smoking
cigars, establishing the four-to-six-cigar-a-day habit that he
has maintained ever since.

After completing a two-year hitch, Morgan signed up for six
more. He continued to excel at baseball. One season, while
stationed in Panama, he hit 26 homers in 30 games against
military competition, which led to an offer from the Pittsburgh
Pirates. But Morgan was locked into playing for Uncle Sam. "I
really wanted to try, yet I had to honor my commitment," he
says. "It was just bad timing, but I've got no complaints. The
Army made a good man out of me. It taught me discipline and
respect."

It also exposed him to war. Morgan's first 11-month tour of
Vietnam came in 1966, his second in 1970, when he was a staff
sergeant in charge of a combat platoon. Morgan, who received the
Bronze Star, is reluctant to talk about the experience. He
hurries through the names of the places in which he fought--Phu
Bai, Lhong Bhin, Bhin Loc--but says he doesn't remember where he
was when a piece of shrapnel from a claymore mine tore through
his left calf. Morgan will say he is proud that only one of the
42 men in his platoon was killed during his second tour. "I
wasn't the kind of sergeant who hollered a lot," he says.
"Mainly, I had to set an example."

Between tours in Vietnam, while stationed in Hawaii, Morgan was
reintroduced to golf. During warmups before a baseball game at
the Scofield Barracks on Oahu in 1968, some players were hitting
iron shots in the outfield. Morgan tried his hand--it was the
first time he had hit something other than a seven-iron--and was
hooked. He bought a set of used clubs and for the next six
months hit balls every day at a driving range. Although he was
desperate to play on a real course, Morgan wouldn't try until he
felt he had reasonable control of the ball. When he was ready,
he shot a 79 in his first regulation round. "I learned from
watching guys in the military who could play," says Morgan.
"None of them had picture swings. They were scramblers and so
was I, and I loved the competition."

Returning to Hawaii after his second stint in Vietnam, Morgan
began breaking 70 regularly. He played in all the local amateur
tournaments and won the 1975 and '76 All-Service championships.
He found that golf suited him. "I think the military taught me
patience, how to forget bad things and go on," he says. "I'm
good at forgetting bad shots."

Almost immediately after retiring from the service as a 20-year
man in 1980, Morgan decided to find out how good he really was.
He turned pro and entered the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. He
made it to the final stage and missed earning a card by only one
stroke. (Fred Couples played in the same Q school and made it by
tying for the last spot.) Morgan, who was 39, had no financial
backing and never tried to qualify again. "I wasn't too
disappointed because I found out that I was pretty good," he
says, "but I was too old to be with those young boys in the
first place."

For the next 10 years Morgan worked as a club pro, except for a
two-year hiatus as a corrections officer at Beto Prison in
Palestine, Texas. "It was a good job, a good-paying job," he
says, "but you had to watch your back all the time."

Morgan competed often in regional tournaments, and seniors such
as Orville Moody, Rives McBee and John Paul Cain encouraged him
to try the Senior tour. After turning 50 on May 31, 1991, Morgan
put his life savings on the line and hit the mini-tours and the
Monday qualifiers on the Senior tour. That year he played his
way into four Senior tour events, his best finish being a 19th
at the Showdown Classic. "It was a very tough experience," he
says. "You just had to stick your lip out and do it."

Morgan finally reached the Senior tour in 1992 by way of Q
school and had flashes of brilliance. He shot a 63 in the first
round of the 1992 GTE North Classic but followed with a 73 and a
76. "I got paired with Ray Floyd the last round and flat
choked," he says. Still, the experience gave him some
perspective. "I told myself that it's not life and death out
here on tour," he says. "Life and death is in the jungle. You
make a mistake there and it's all over. You make a mistake on
the golf course, you try to make a birdie on the next hole."

Because he never finished better than 57th on the money list in
his first three seasons, and only the top 31 stay exempt, Morgan
had to keep returning to Q school. Although he possessed a
strong and accurate long game, he came up short around the
greens. In 1994, with the goal of correcting this weakness,
Morgan played mostly in the Senior satellite events, grooving
his skills from 80 yards and in. When he once again emerged from
the Q school for the '95 season, he was a different player.

His victory that year in Seattle capped a season in which he
finished in the top 10 five times and won $423,756. That left
him 27th on the money list and, finally, exempt. He was voted
comeback player of the year by his peers and hasn't looked back
since.

As one of six African-Americans on the Senior tour (and
currently the most successful), Morgan is well aware of his debt
to the pioneers of black golf. He calls the 74-year-old Charlie
Sifford "my father" only half jokingly. Says Sifford, "Walt's a
wonderful guy. I see a lot of me in him. He ain't going to break
down, and he ain't afraid of nothing."

But while Sifford is often bitter about the treatment he has
received from the golf establishment because of the color of his
skin, Morgan, who came up in a different era, keeps any
resentment he might feel locked inside. "Sure, I've been stopped
by security guards at the locker room door and gotten some funny
looks even after showing them my player's badge," he says. "It
can make you mad. But now I pay no attention. I'm here to play
golf. If you let stuff like that bother you, you might as well
go home."

Morgan is also quietly proud of his own place in the continuum
of black golf. Three weeks ago, when he was told that Tiger
Woods had won in Orlando, the news produced a genuine rise. "Did
he really? I'm so happy," Morgan said, his face breaking into a
broad smile. "You can just tell by the look in his eyes that
that young man has absolutely no fear. I know his father was
military and that had to rub off."

Pausing, Morgan said something similar to what Sifford had said
about him. "When I look at Tiger, I see myself."

He wasn't talking about youth, money, the game or the swing. "He
believes in himself," Morgan added. "That's all I've ever had."

COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN [Walter Morgan playing golf]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Compared to the fieldwork Morgan did while growing up in Georgia, life on the Senior tour is easy pickings. [Walter Morgan autographing hat for boy]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Always a cut above off the tee and with long irons, Morgan blossomed after shoring up his short game. [Walter Morgan sitting on mower]