Shortly before teeing off in the MasterCard Championship in Hawaii a month ago, Gil Morgan, that noted doctor of optometry, said he thought there was no reason he couldn't do as well this year as he did in 1997, which was very well indeed. His six wins helped him to more than $2 million in prize money, considerably more than he could have charged patients for prescribing bifocals. However, Hale Irwin, who does not relinquish the spotlight easily, did even better, winning nine times and earning $2,343,364, a record on any tour, anywhere.
Morgan backed his Hawaiian optimism by winning that tournament, which was for '97 champions only. Sorry, Hale, you're one down. And last week, at the LG Championship in Naples, Fla., Morgan emerged from a Sunday free-for-all to win again, pitching in for an eagle on the 18th hole to beat out a small platoon of players, many of whom are headed for the Senior tour's Hall of Fame.
The final round began with Jim Albus apparently in control. Albus, 57, had opened with a 67, followed with a 70 and had gone to bed on Saturday with a four-stroke lead over Raymond Floyd, who, having gone winless last year for the first time since turning 50, seemed ready for a change. Albus admitted that he didn't know how his game would hold up after two years without a win, and, sure enough, on Sunday he bogeyed three of the first six holes. For his pursuers, the game was on.
Throughout the rest of the round, played in balmy, breezy weather after two days of light rain and biting winds, the battle for the lead was a donnybrook, with as many as six players in contention. Floyd was there, but shaky putting led to bogeys at 12 and 13. Irwin closed fast with birdies at 17 and 18, establishing three under as the score to beat. Jim Colbert birdied 18 to match it. Tom Wargo lurked a shot off the lead, but got no closer.
Over the final holes, the tournament became a two-man duel between Morgan and Dale Douglass, a quiet 61-year-old veteran who only golf cognoscenti would know has won 11 times and ranks 10th on the alltime Senior money list. When Douglass dropped a 20-foot putt at 16, he broke clear of the field at four under par. With the par-5 18th a reasonably easy birdie hole, Douglass had essentially killed off Irwin and Colbert—but not Morgan. At 16, a stroke behind, he sank virtually the same putt that Douglass had. Tie ball game. Both parred 17 and Douglass, one group ahead of Morgan, could not get his birdie at 18.
Now it was Morgan's turn. Going for the green in two, Morgan hit his approach short, barely avoiding the pond guarding the left front of the green. Birdie seemed a 50-50 proposition at best. From medium rough, Morgan swung and watched as his ball landed on the green and rolled for perhaps 20 feet before hitting the flagstick and dropping squarely into the cup for an eagle 3. Did you catch that, Hale? Gil has you 2 down.
"I never thought I was in the tournament until I came to the last few holes," said Morgan in what for him was a major address. "I guess that shows what can happen if you keep plugging."
For Albus, who shot 77, the final round was a bitter pill. In 1990 he had left a secure life as a club pro at Piping Rock in Westbury, N.Y., to try his luck on the tour and almost immediately struck gold, winning the 1991 Senior Players Championship. In 1992 he was nicknamed Iron Man after playing every round of every Senior event. Two years later he finished third on the money list with more than $1.2 million in earnings. Everything was blue skies.
But for the last two years Albus's life has been an episode from General Hospital. First came a neck operation that sidelined him for two months. A year ago he fractured an ankle and was out for another two months. If the events of last week proved anything, it is that he's again healthy and, potentially, a winner.
Which is what Floyd would like to be. Seniors Skins and Father-Son games aside, Floyd flopped last year. One television commentator reported last week that "Raymond once again has that look in his eye," but in Naples he sounded like a lamb. "Everybody is trying to read that I'm hungry," Floyd says, "but I don't have the time to do what it takes for me to be at the top of my game. Nor do I have the desire."