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."