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A Sight For Sore Eyes Once Gil Morgan compensated for his faulty vision, he saw his career take off

July 13, 1998
July 13, 1998

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July 13, 1998

Boxing [bonus Piece]

A Sight For Sore Eyes Once Gil Morgan compensated for his faulty vision, he saw his career take off

So what's with Gil Morgan? Guy was on the regular Tour for 23
years, making a solid swing, but only won a few here and there,
and no majors. Underachiever, right? No tiger in his tank. But
now, all of a sudden, on the Senior circuit he's a top dog.
Multi-multiwinner. True, the older-folks circuit is a different
bargain. Not as much competition. But still, winning is a thing
in and of itself, and here is Morgan, winning 10 times out of
his first 40 Senior tour starts. So what happened? Did he wake
up one morning with the secret? Did he have an epiphany? Did he
take some kind of Viagra for competitive impotence?

This is an article from the July 13, 1998 issue

None of the above. Well, not quite none. The Gil Morgan story
has an evolutionary angle, a survival of the fittest
twist--unfittest, actually--and an interesting irony.

Irony first. Morgan was born with an unusual case of
hyperopia--farsightedness. What makes his condition unusual is
not the degree of farsightedness, although it is not
inconsiderable, but the disparity between his eyes. It's called
anisometropia. His right eye is +2.75, but the left eye is
+5.50. To understand the numbers in real-life terms, imagine
you're looking through a device in which you see two equidistant
objects, a pig with your right eye, a dog with your left. If you
have normal vision, or just ordinarily imperfect eyesight, you
will see two objects more or less together. If you are Morgan,
you see the pig. However, for the left eye the object is so much
smaller that your brain cannot reconcile the two objects, so you
don't even see the dog. This is known as cortical rejection, or
suppression.

Now for the irony. Morgan did not discover his anisometropia
until he entered the Southern College of Optometry, in Memphis,
in 1968. As part of his entrance orientation, his eyes were
examined. He learned that he had a touch of astigmatism, which
blurred things a bit. A more advanced test involved looking
through the aforementioned stereoscopic device. "The examiners
asked me to tell them what happened when I saw the pig and the
dog," Morgan recalls. "I said, 'What dog?'"

He had been playing baseball, football and a lot of basketball
since he was eight or nine, and golf since he was 15. But not
until he took that eye exam at age 22 did he realize how poor
his depth perception was. Only with the diagnosis of
anisometropia could he begin to understand why, for example, he
would get nothing but net from the forecourt (he could use the
backboard as a visual clue to distance) and throw up air balls
from the corners (he was shooting into a void). On the golf
course, for uphill approach shots on which he couldn't see the
surface of the green, only the pin against the sky, he couldn't
judge the distance to the hole. On approach shots across a
ravine, with the pin well back from the edge of the opposite
rise, he saw the pin as being at the front edge of the rise,
which explains why he hit so many iron shots on target but
either well short of the pin or well past it. "When I started
using the book," says Morgan, meaning the precise yardage
information caddies and players now carry, "it made a definite
difference in my approach-shot game." Golf is not just a game of
numbers, though. It's also one of feel, and to buttress the
yardage information, he found other ways to gain depth
perception. He learned to use monocular clues--backdrops such as
a tree, a fence, a grandstand or the shadows cast by these
objects and by the pin.

Another aspect of Morgan's poor vision had an even bigger impact
on his game, and he didn't fully understand the problem until
much later in his career. Nobody wins much in the pros without
consistently excellent putting. Most putts, of course, have some
break in them, and Morgan cannot see undulations well, even with
corrective lenses. Slopes tend to flatten out. As a result he's
inclined not to borrow enough on breaking putts. The putts that
give him the most trouble are the midrange ones, where pars are
saved and birdies made. "From four to 12 feet, the breaks are
usually very subtle and the hardest for me to read," says
Morgan. "From inside three feet it's O.K. because even if there
is some break, I'm still going to play inside the hole. I missed
a lot from four to 12, 90 percent of the time below the hole."

Why wasn't the eye problem caught earlier? After all, his
father, who began wearing glasses at six, had the same disorder,
though it wasn't as severe. "I could read the test charts when I
got eye examinations as a kid," Morgan says, "because the
letters were far enough away, and it didn't seem to bother me
playing sports."

Only after he discovered the difficulty 30 years ago did Morgan
get a corrective prescription, but optometric technology was not
as advanced as it has become, and Morgan's problem required very
thick lenses--so thick that they distorted his vision. "The
first time I tried hitting a golf ball with them was the last
time," he says. "I caught it way out on the toe of the driver
and knocked it out-of-bounds two fairways to the right. That was
enough for me. The glasses were also too heavy and made playing
in the rain a hassle." He wore the specs only for reading, which
is how he got through the four-year optometry course.

He next tried contact lenses, but that technology wasn't as
advanced as it is now either. "Not for farsightedness, anyway,"
Morgan says, "probably because most people are nearsighted and
that's where most of the research is aimed." The first contacts
Morgan tried were made of thick, hard plastic. "When I blinked,
it was as if I had stones in my eyes," says Morgan. He nixed
contacts until the late '70s, when thinner, softer lenses became
available.

Now, consider this. While still in optometry school, Morgan was
regularly shooting in the high 60s. In 1970 he tied for ninth in
the U.S. Amateur, and in 1972 he played his one and only year of
big-time amateur golf to see if he had the stuff for the pros.
After becoming an optometrist, he set out for the Tour. He
failed in his first try at Q school, in the fall of 1972, but he
made it through the next year, finishing second to Ben Crenshaw.
Playing without corrective lenses, Morgan kept his card until he
began wearing contacts in '77.

That year he won his first pro tournament, the B.C. Open. He
would go on to win seven times on Tour and place third in every
major but the British Open. (Flat, treeless Scottish links don't
offer many backdrops.) Morgan also played on two Ryder Cup
teams, and in 1992, at 46, was the first player in U.S. Open
history to reach 10 under par. (He would get to 12 under,
through 43 holes, before slumping to a 13th-place finish.)
Perhaps most significant, during his 23-year run on Tour, Morgan
had 21 seconds and 23 thirds--significant because he was playing
with eyes that severely impaired his putting. He was also held
back by two operations on his right rotator cuff (exploratory
arthroscopic surgery first, in the fall of 1986, then the full
monty a year later). The procedures sidelined him for about a
year and a half, a painful experience exacerbated by the fact
that he was coming off two of his best seasons.

Morgan's record attests to how much talent he has always had.
The compact, well-formed swing we see today is almost exactly
the same as it was when he was a kid. When Morgan was 19, his
father took him to see Harvey Penick, and the old master said
there was nothing he could do for the boy, that he should
practice a lot and get some stiffer competition.

Power was never a problem. Morgan is surprisingly strong.
Although only 5'9", he can palm a basketball, has thick wrists
and forearms, large feet (size 11C) and powerful legs. He's one
of your sneaky types, as in sneaky strong, sneaky long, sneaky
smart. And very private. Over the years Morgan has spoken to
friends about his vision, but never in much detail and never
publicly until now.

As is often the case with a reserved, undemonstrative figure,
there's more to Morgan than meets the eye. Look closely and you
see a lively hop to his step. Listen closely and you pick up a
way with words, a wry wit. Asked by a fan who thinks Morgan is a
dentist if the golfer can help with a cavity, Morgan says the
best he can do is work on the fellow's eyetooth. Driving by an
Oklahoma field where the winter wheat is just coming up, Morgan
talks about how it will look when the wheat ripens: "It sways in
the wind like a golden sea."

Morgan was born and raised in Wewoka, Okla., 70 miles east of
Oklahoma City. It's a town of 4,050, with lots of empty
storefronts downtown. Wewoka had more pep when Morgan was
growing up, but even then everybody knew everybody else. His
father's monument business, Morgan and Sons Memorial, and his
mother's restaurant, Morgan's Supper Club, nee Morgan's Mug,
were side by side on Suran Drive, directly across the road from
their house.

Morgan, an only child, went to church every Sunday (Methodist),
did his schoolwork and "always did as his father and mother told
him. He never got in trouble," says Imogene Morgan, Gil's
mother, who still lives in Wewoka. (Morgan's father, Gilmer,
died in 1994.)

After graduating from Wewoka High in 1964, Morgan spent a summer
taking courses at Oklahoma, in Norman, but was overwhelmed by
the size of the student body. "We had only 88 in my high school
class, so it was a big change to go where there were 20,000
students, and I transferred to East Central State [in Ada,
Okla.]." He has never strayed far from home. He and his wife,
Jeanine, live just 90 miles from Wewoka in Edmond with their
three daughters, Molly, 17, Maggie, 15, and Melanie, 13.

Morgan gets his reserve from his mother. His zest for language,
art and fast cars comes from his father. "Gilmer senior was a
very strong personality," says John Norman, a family friend who
played No. 1 to Gil's No. 2 on the Wewoka High team. "He may
have been a little overwhelming to Gil in that respect, but he
did everything to help his boy in sports. When the rest of us
were wearing sneakers for football, Gil had a pair of cleats
Gilmer bought him. Gilmer would park his car beside the practice
green when it got dark and turn on the lights so Gil could
practice bunker shots."

Was it only his eyes that kept Morgan from making it bigger on
the regular Tour? Morgan thinks so, but others used to whisper
that he lacked the killer instinct. "I'm not a very aggressive
person," says Morgan, who admits that he wasn't comfortable with
the take-no-prisoners mentality on the regular Tour. Ernie
Vossler, a former Tour pro from Oklahoma who's the only person
to have worked with Morgan on his game, and that on a very
limited scale, says Morgan is "the nicest guy you'll ever know."
That sentiment is echoed by everyone who knows him, including
the Seniors he has been beating like a drum for the last two
years.

So nice guys can be winners, after all. Morgan's aware that
people say he's a big fish in a small pond, and he goes along
with it. He's a straight shooter, and not just with his golf
clubs. He defends the quality of the Senior tour like a good
company man, but he also acknowledges that he has only five to
eight guys to beat every week, not 25 or 30. With his
considerable length off the tee and relative youth, he knows he
has a golden opportunity. He knew it long before he got out
among the Seniors, which is why he began preparing well in
advance. Morgan is also very sensible.

"I began thinking about the Senior tour four or five years ago,"
he says. "I was a little anxious about my physical condition, my
shoulder, and saw it as a now-or-never chance to become
financially secure. I wasn't aware of the precise statistics,
but I knew that a very high percentage [87%] of the wins on this
tour come from golfers between the ages of 50 and 55. I figured
when you come out, you have a five-year window to make it big,
maybe more depending on swing type. Frankly, I think my swing
fundamentals are good enough that I may have a 10-year window,
if I can stay healthy."

Vossler takes him even farther. "It wouldn't surprise me if he
stays on top until he's 70," he says. "He can win $20 million
out there. He has those Popeye arms, has never smoked or drank,
eats properly and has as good a swing as it gets. The only thing
that could stop him is his shoulder. He doesn't talk about it
much because that's his way, but he has had more than a little
pain there. You'll find he's at his best in the summer. The heat
helps. I've been telling him for years he should move to Arizona
or Palm Springs, where it's warm in the winter and he can
practice. But he likes it where he is in Oklahoma."

What most accounts for Morgan's success on the Senior tour is
his putting. It was what kept him down on the regular Tour and
would have on the over-50 circuit, too, if not for a kind of
divine intervention. Norman recalls that even back when he and
Gil were teenagers, Morgan's father was after his son to
practice putting and chipping, but like most sweet swingers
Morgan found hitting shots more satisfying. Then again, he
didn't practice his short game as much because he couldn't see
the breaks and had trouble with the distance. No matter how long
he practiced, the result was like getting a transfusion from a
ghost--no blood. "I remember hearing about Nancy Lopez never
leaving the putting green until she made a hundred three-footers
in a row," says Morgan. "A hundred in a row! I'd have been there
all night and wouldn't have gotten to 10."

Which brings us to the evolution part of the story. The
revelation part, too. As noted, Morgan had developed a number of
visual clues to deal with approach shots and had the yardage
book for every course. However, he hadn't figured out what to do
about the undulations on the greens. "There are no reference
points to measure this," he says. Then, about three years ago,
his close friend and adviser, Bill Carpenter, sent Morgan a
video by short-game teacher Dave Pelz. The thing that caught
Morgan's attention was Pelz's comment that most golfers don't
play enough break on putts, and that his statistics showed most
players missed on the low side of the hole. Nothing could have
resonated more with Morgan. "Yes, you could say a lightbulb came
on," he says.

Morgan connected his vision problem with the Pelz finding. "I
began to double and even triple what I saw through my eyes," he
says. "If it looked as if I should play it two balls to the
right, I'd make it four or even five. My confidence grew, and I
began making more putts. I was no longer tentative. I became
more aggressive." The game was on. Is on. Morgan has never
practiced optometry, but until a year ago he kept current with
the field and maintained his license to practice. It had always
been a just-in-case thing. No more. Last year, when he made more
than $2 million on the Senior tour, he didn't renew.

During all those years of indifferent putting, why didn't Morgan
use his caddie to help him read the greens? "Well," he says, "I
always felt that was my responsibility. Giving yardage and
suggesting what club to hit is one thing, but reading putts is
my deal. Frankly, I think it should be against the rules for
caddies to help their players read greens."

How about reading that as a clue to a personality?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHIP SIMONS THE LONG VIEW Morgan's condition, undiagnosed until he entered optometry school, limited his depth perception. [Hands holding two eyeglasses to focus Gil Morgan on golf course]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO GREEN MONSTER On short putts Morgan guesses on the amount of break. [Gil Morgan golfing]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHIP SIMONS FAST COMPANY Mild-mannered Morgan is also a speed demon whose pride and joy is a '91 'Vette. [Gil Morgan and Corvette car]COLOR PHOTO: AV STRINEL LOCAL TIES The Morgan name is big in little Wewoka, and Gil still lives only 90 miles away. [Sign showing Gil Morgan Drive and Gil Morgan golf course]
"I think it should be against the rules for caddies to help
their players read greens," Morgan says.
When he was 19, Morgan was sent to see Harvey Penick, who said
there was nothing he could do.
Morgan's father "did everything to help his boy in sports," says
a friend of the family.