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The Doctor Takes Over
Jeff Pearlman
April 13, 1998
A Win at the Tradition made Gil Morgan the man to beat
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April 13, 1998

The Doctor Takes Over

A Win at the Tradition made Gil Morgan the man to beat

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The man with a gut, a beer and a wrinkly purple-and-gold Milwaukee Brewers cap summed up last week's Tradition better than most. He was with his wife at the Cochise Course at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Sunday morning, watching the nail-biting final round that pitted Gil Morgan, the defending champ, against Tom Wargo, the leader. The man was following the action, talking the talk, walking the walk, when—boom!—he was confronted by a tournament official near the 4th tee. "Sir," said the official, "please stand still."

This was a moment of Tradition truth. "Talk about bulls—," said Robin Yount, hardly whispering. "Doc Morgan and his $3 million goes to hit and everything stops dead. But good ol' Tom Wargo has his turn, and they let everyone talk all they want. That's how it works, like it or not. That's golf."

Those words made official what had been unofficial. What was private became public. Last week's Tradition, the first major of the year on the Senior tour, was really about first-class versus coach, the Waldorf versus TraveLodge, bottled water versus tap. Wargo, the former bartender, assembly-line worker and Alaska rig fisherman, was the perfect foil for Morgan, the licensed optometrist, successful Tour veteran and owner of some really nice slacks. "I see myself as a blue-collar guy," says Wargo, who bears a striking resemblance to a working-class hero from a couple of decades ago, Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle. "I think people can really relate to that."

The Wargo crowd was sensing victory on Sunday. Their man had played well up to that point, jumping in front from the start and holding steady on rounds of 68-67-69, two shots better than Morgan going into the final 18. Then, at the 194-yard par-3 7th hole, Wargo cracked. He jerked his four-iron tee shot left of left, over the heads of some spectators and into a water hazard. Instant double bogey. After Morgan, his playing partner, parred the hole, Wargo's lead was gone and the game was on. "That hurt because it wasn't smart golf," said Wargo, "but it probably wasn't what killed me." The killers came a few holes later, at the 11th and 12th, which Wargo bogeyed and Morgan birdied. That gave the good doctor a four-stroke advantage that proved insurmountable for Wargo, who finished with a disappointing two-over 74. Morgan capped his 12-under-par 276 with a 70.

The win is Morgan's third of the season and puts him ahead of the pace set by Hale Irwin a year ago when he tied Peter Thomson's Senior tour record for most victories in a season—nine. Morgan, normally as demonstrative as a pen cap, lights up when talking about his goals this season. "I've looked at number of wins," he says, "and I've looked at leading money winner. As a player you try to achieve as much as you can for your ability."

At this point in time, Morgan seems to come out way ahead in the ability category when compared to his peers. "He's easily the best player going now," says Wargo. "He's amazing around the greens, and with his length you can see the confidence booming in him. He knows how to win."

There was no arguing that point. Morgan, 51, is in his prime as a Senior and has begun to dominate the tour. He has won five of his last nine starts and, going back to last June, has been in the top 10 in 18 of the 21 tournaments he has entered. Since becoming eligible for the Senior tour in September 1996, Morgan has collected $2,992,481 in prize money. "I guess I'm probably a better player now than I was earlier in my career," he says. "I mean, I never had this much success."

Success is a subject Jack Nicklaus, who designed the Cochise Course, knows a thing or two about. Before Morgan took center stage on Sunday, Nicklaus was the topic of a number of conversations, most of them having to do with the figure 144, the streak of consecutive majors on the regular Tour in which he has played. Nicklaus was making his first start in a Senior event since the USGA awarded him a three-year exemption into the U.S. Open, which will keep the streak alive through the year 2000.

Nicklaus, who finished 25th at Desert Mountain, 15 shots behind Morgan, made it clear that any reports that his decision to accept free passes was an easy one were wrong. "I had made up my mind that Augusta was going to be the end of my streak," he said. "I was completely fine with that, so when the invitation came, I said that I needed to talk with my wife. Barbara and I had some serious decisions to make."

Nicklaus said that he had pretty much come to the conclusion that the USGA wasn't going to offer him the exemption and, therefore, he would likely play a few more Senior events and a scattering of tournaments on the regular Tour, devote more time to his course design business and—at long last—do some serious grandfathering. (Jack and Barbara have eight grandchildren.) Having the streak come to an end would have been a blessing in some ways, Nicklaus said. "It would allow me to take the monkey off my back a little bit, and not worry so much about working hard on my game and keeping in decent shape," he said. "I was ready for that."

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