The Doctor Takes Over A win at the Tradition made Gil Morgan the man to beat

April 12, 1998

The man with a gut, a beer and a wrinkly purple-and-gold
Milwaukee Brewers cap summed up last week's Tradition better
than most. He was with his wife at the Cochise Course at Desert
Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Sunday morning, watching the
nail-biting final round that pitted Gil Morgan, the defending
champ, against Tom Wargo, the leader. The man was following the
action, talking the talk, walking the walk, when--boom!--he was
confronted by a tournament official near the 4th tee. "Sir,"
said the official, "please stand still."

This was a moment of Tradition truth. "Talk about bulls---,"
said Robin Yount, hardly whispering. "Doc Morgan and his $3
million goes to hit and everything stops dead. But good ol' Tom
Wargo has his turn, and they let everyone talk all they want.
That's how it works, like it or not. That's golf."

Those words made official what had been unofficial. What was
private became public. Last week's Tradition, the first major of
the year on the Senior tour, was really about first-class versus
coach, the Waldorf versus TraveLodge, bottled water versus tap.
Wargo, the former bartender, assembly-line worker and Alaska rig
fisherman, was the perfect foil for Morgan, the licensed
optometrist, successful Tour veteran and owner of some really
nice slacks. "I see myself as a blue-collar guy," says Wargo,
who bears a striking resemblance to a working-class hero from a
couple of decades ago, Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle. "I think
people can really relate to that."

The Wargo crowd was sensing victory on Sunday. Their man had
played well up to that point, jumping in front from the start
and holding steady on rounds of 68-67-69, two shots better than
Morgan going into the final 18. Then, at the 194-yard par-3 7th
hole, Wargo cracked. He jerked his four-iron tee shot left of
left, over the heads of some spectators and into a water hazard.
Instant double bogey. After Morgan, his playing partner, parred
the hole, Wargo's lead was gone and the game was on. "That hurt
because it wasn't smart golf," said Wargo, "but it probably
wasn't what killed me." The killers came a few holes later, at
the 11th and 12th, which Wargo bogeyed and Morgan birdied. That
gave the good doctor a four-stroke advantage that proved
insurmountable for Wargo, who finished with a disappointing
two-over 74. Morgan capped his 12-under-par 276 with a 70.

The win is Morgan's third of the season and puts him ahead of
the pace set by Hale Irwin a year ago when he tied Peter
Thomson's Senior tour record for most victories in a
season--nine. Morgan, normally as demonstrative as a pen cap,
lights up when talking about his goals this season. "I've looked
at number of wins," he says, "and I've looked at leading money
winner. As a player you try to achieve as much as you can for
your ability."

At this point in time, Morgan seems to come out way ahead in the
ability category when compared to his peers. "He's easily the
best player going now," says Wargo. "He's amazing around the
greens, and with his length you can see the confidence booming
in him. He knows how to win."

There was no arguing that point. Morgan, 51, is in his prime as
a Senior and has begun to dominate the tour. He has won five of
his last nine starts and, going back to last June, has been in
the top 10 in 18 of the 21 tournaments he has entered. Since
becoming eligible for the Senior tour in September 1996, Morgan
has collected $2,992,481 in prize money. "I guess I'm probably a
better player now than I was earlier in my career," he says. "I
mean, I never had this much success."

Success is a subject Jack Nicklaus, who designed the Cochise
Course, knows a thing or two about. Before Morgan took center
stage on Sunday, Nicklaus was the topic of a number of
conversations, most of them having to do with the figure 144,
the streak of consecutive majors on the regular Tour in which he
has played. Nicklaus was making his first start in a Senior
event since the USGA awarded him a three-year exemption into the
U.S. Open, which will keep the streak alive through the year 2000.

Nicklaus, who finished 25th at Desert Mountain, 15 shots behind
Morgan, made it clear that any reports that his decision to
accept free passes was an easy one were wrong. "I had made up my
mind that Augusta was going to be the end of my streak," he
said. "I was completely fine with that, so when the invitation
came, I said that I needed to talk with my wife. Barbara and I
had some serious decisions to make."

Nicklaus said that he had pretty much come to the conclusion
that the USGA wasn't going to offer him the exemption and,
therefore, he would likely play a few more Senior events and a
scattering of tournaments on the regular Tour, devote more time
to his course design business and--at long last--do some serious
grandfathering. (Jack and Barbara have eight grandchildren.)
Having the streak come to an end would have been a blessing in
some ways, Nicklaus said. "It would allow me to take the monkey
off my back a little bit, and not worry so much about working
hard on my game and keeping in decent shape," he said. "I was
ready for that."

Some old habits, though, are hard to change. No matter how often
he cites his bad left hip or gripes about losing 40 yards off
the tee or being "nowhere near the player I once was,"
Nicklaus--unlike most of the other Seniors--still believes that
he can win when he ventures onto the regular Tour. "The goal is
exactly the same as it always has been," says Barbara, who as
usual walked every step of the way with Jack at Desert Mountain.
"It may be harder than it used to be, but Jack still plays every
event trying to win."

At one point last week Nicklaus told a visitor that his bad hip
had created a difference in strength in his left and right legs.
He shifted back and forth like a Weeble Wobble, saying, "Look, I
don't balance quite right anymore." Minutes later, at the
request of a newspaper photographer, Nicklaus knelt for a
picture. When he was asked to stand up, shift right and bend
down again, Nicklaus looked at the man and laughed. "Sir," he
said, "I'm not as bouncy as I used to be." A moment later, he
shifted and bent.

Nicklaus admitted that he was in high spirits because of the
upcoming Masters, an event that he has won a record six times
and "always gets me up." Can he win a seventh green jacket at
age 58? "I'm probably beyond that," he says almost reflexively,
then adds, "but if I really play well I can be competitive. I
would like to have the opportunity to be within two or thee
shots and see what happens. If you get yourself in that type of
position, maybe you can finish it."

Maybe, but we won't hold our breath. Anyway, why take a flier on
a long shot like Nicklaus when you can go with a sure thing like
Morgan?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK [Gil Morgan golfing] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK MISS BEHAVIOR Wargo (above) couldn't hold on after leading for three days, while Nicklaus wouldn't let go of the notion that he's capable of winning a seventh green jacket. [Tom Wargo with one leg raised; Jack Nicklaus leaning over]

"[Morgan's] easily the best player going now," says Wargo. "He
knows how to win."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)