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.
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.