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Beating The Rap

Nov. 15, 2004
Nov. 15, 2004

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Nov. 15, 2004

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Beating The Rap

Before he emerged as the Tour's first hip-hop golfer, John Morgan had to overcome a lot more than dirty looks

Flight attendants, please be seated for takeoff." Those were the last words John Morgan remembers hearing. He was aboard American Airlines Flight 769 to Reno, on the tarmac at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport; seated directly in front of him was Mike Mollet, who caddies for Jeff Brehaut on the PGA Tour. It was Sunday, Aug. 15, and both men were heading for the Reno-Tahoe Open, where Morgan was hoping to secure his Tour card for the 2005 season with a strong showing. He was also excited about seeing his parents, who had flown in from his hometown of Portishead,

This is an article from the Nov. 15, 2004 issue

England, to watch him play. "Don't be kicking my seat like a little kid," Mollet had said to the 26-year-old Morgan in the waiting area before they'd boarded the plane.

After the Boeing 747 had been sitting on the tarmac for 15 minutes, the pilot moved the plane into position for takeoff and revved its engines. On cue, Morgan began kicking the back of Mollet's chair. "Stop playing," Mollet said. But the kicking did not stop, and when Mollet finally turned to look behind him, he knew that Morgan wasn't playing--his eyes had rolled back in his head and his body was convulsing. Although he was wearing a seat belt, his 6'2", 200-pound frame shot up, ramming his head into the overhead compartment, and then crashed down across the armrest. As flight attendants scurried to help, Mollet, Rick Goyette, another Tour caddie who happened to be on board, and several other passengers did what little they could to make Morgan comfortable. Minutes later, the pilot pulled the plane out of its takeoff position and cut across two active runways to get back to the gate. An ambulance was on the way for John Morgan.

a month earlier Morgan had been strolling down the 18th fairway of the TPC at Deere Run in Silvis, Ill. He was playing the 72nd hole of the John Deere Classic, and he had just birdied three of his last four holes to get to 15 under, a shot behind leader Mark Hensby. With his hat turned backward like a hip-hop fan and the gallery cheering him on, Morgan wasn't thinking about the birdie he would need to have a shot at a playoff or the automatic berth to the British Open that he would receive with a win. He was thinking about the Eminem song Lose Yourself.

You better lose yourself in the music

The moment, you own it, you better never let it go

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow

This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.

The song had been running through his head all day, and he was singing it to himself as he hit two perfect shots down the fairway and then nailed a curling 30-footer for that birdie. He had stormed his way into a playoff, but now he was out of magic. "I lost the song in my head during the break between the end of regulation and the start of the playoff," said Morgan. Hensby took the title on the second extra hole.

That a rap song was part of a professional golfer's success is a surprise, but it's less of a surprise when the golfer is John Morgan. "He's been a breath of fresh air on the PGA Tour," says fellow pro Tommy Armour III.

One man's breath of fresh air, however, can be another's unwelcome gust. During his rookie season, in 2003, Morgan caught the unwelcome attention of his peers with several Tour faux pas, such as attempting to chat up a less-than-chummy Tiger Woods in a locker room and perpetrating a starry-eyed-fan-like visitation on Ernie Els while the Big Easy was out to dinner. Moreover, Morgan spent most of the season with his normally brown hair dyed a vibrant shade of blue. Originally he had colored it after losing a bet and stopped dyeing it only when he discovered that doing so was making his hair fall out. "I like doing things differently," says Morgan.

He always has. As an amateur, Morgan incurred the wrath of the English Golf Union by performing Happy Gilmore routines for his teammates on the practice range. Later, after he'd played his way onto England's Sherry Cup team, he showed up drunk for an official dinner in Spain in 2000. "I don't think I was the kind of person that they wanted representing English amateur golf," says Morgan.

His irreverence and rebellion have their roots in his childhood. He has dyslexia, a learning disorder that impairs his ability to comprehend written words, which caused him to struggle in school and feel as if he never quite fit in. "I was bullied all the way through school," Morgan says, "so I became sort of a class clown."

Dyslexia wasn't Morgan's only hurdle. In 1998 he discovered that he also had epilepsy. As so often happens for epileptics, Morgan found out about his affliction in the most horrifying way--by having a grand mal seizure. During those two minutes of violent convulsions, he bit off part of his tongue, cracked two ribs and lost consciousness.

"I woke up in the hospital, and my mom was standing over me," Morgan says. "I couldn't remember a damn thing." In the aftermath he slipped into a deep depression, losing confidence and his desire to play golf. "It rocked his world for a long time," says Morgan's mother, Sue. "But he's accustomed to challenges, and his love of golf really kept him going."

So did daily doses of Lamictal, a medication that helps control epilepsy. The only problem was that Lamictal also gave Morgan migraines. The pain and distraction of those headaches were part of the reason he decided to stop taking the medication in June.

That decision seemed to be a good one--Morgan got hot in July, finishing second at the John Deere and 13th at the B.C. Open. His success earned him a lot of TV time, and some people loved his emotional play, which includes plenty of fist-pumping and his new-school style. Many traditionalists, however--especially those who frequent online golf chat rooms--reacted as if Morgan were hacking at the foundations of society.

Morgan swears that none of his actions are done to make a statement--social, fashion or otherwise. He's simply being himself.

"are we in Reno yet?" Those were the first words Morgan said when he came to. An ambulance had met Flight 769 on the tarmac and then rushed Morgan to a hospital; it took him more than 45 minutes to regain his senses. Goyette, who had accompanied Morgan to the hospital, told him, "No, we never left Dallas."

Unlike this incident, most of Morgan's seizures come and go as quickly as the fast whipping action of his golf swing. Sue calls them "vacant moments"--abnormally synchronized electrical discharges in the brain--when he drifts away for a spell. Morgan doesn't even want to think about them. "I like to concentrate on hitting golf shots, not the neurology of my brain," he says.

When Morgan had that seizure in Dallas, he had already earned $487,032 in 2004, and it seemed as if he'd have no trouble ringing up the $624,000 or so necessary to finish in the top 125 on the money list. But over his next seven starts he earned nothing, withdrawing three times and missing the cut in the other tournaments. It didn't help his play that he had severely bruised ribs. Morgan immediately went back on Lamictal in Dallas, and started taking the painkiller Vioxx to help him play through the pain. In an unfortunate twist, the Vioxx also quieted the headaches ... until its manufacturer pulled the painkiller from the market in September because it increases the risk of heart attack or stroke in patients.

"I know I probably rushed my rehabilitation," he says, "but I was trying so hard because I wanted my full card for next year." Instead, he finished 145th on the money list, which will give him only conditional status on Tour in 2005 unless he can win back his card at Q school in December.

Still, things like Q school are only the little battles in Morgan's life. Epilepsy and dyslexia and the world's best golfers loom larger, but John Morgan believes he can defeat them all if he can once again get that music playing in his head and tune into his own--unique--rhythm. He points to the final line of his anthem for inspiration, Lose Yourself: "You can do anything you set your mind to, man."

In those two minutes of convulsions, he BIT OFF PART OF HIS TONGUE, cracked two ribs and lost consciousness. "I couldn't remember a damn thing," Morgan says.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by David BergmanREBEL YELL With his mock T-shirt, backward cap and emotional style, Morgan is not your typical Tour pro.COLOR PHOTOFRANK POLICH/ICON SMICOLOR PHOTOFRANK POLICH/ICON SMIHAIR RAZING Morgan first dyed his mane after losing a bet, and only stopped when he realized that it was making his hair fall out.COLOR PHOTOBOB FALCETTI/ICON SMI [See caption above]