That year he won his first pro tournament, the B.C. Open. He would go on to win seven times on Tour and place third in every major but the British Open. (Flat, treeless Scottish links don't offer many backdrops.) Morgan also played on two Ryder Cup teams, and in 1992, at 46, was the first player in U.S. Open history to reach 10 under par. (He would get to 12 under, through 43 holes, before slumping to a 13th-place finish.) Perhaps most significant, during his 23-year run on Tour, Morgan had 21 seconds and 23 thirds—significant because he was playing with eyes that severely impaired his putting. He was also held back by two operations on his right rotator cuff (exploratory arthroscopic surgery first, in the fall of 1986, then the full monty a year later). The procedures sidelined him for about a year and a half, a painful experience exacerbated by the fact that he was coming off two of his best seasons.
Morgan's record attests to how much talent he has always had. The compact, well-formed swing we see today is almost exactly the same as it was when he was a kid. When Morgan was 19, his father took him to see Harvey Penick, and the old master said there was nothing he could do for the boy, that he should practice a lot and get some stiffer competition.
Power was never a problem. Morgan is surprisingly strong. Although only 5'9", he can palm a basketball, has thick wrists and forearms, large feet (size 11C) and powerful legs. He's one of your sneaky types, as in sneaky strong, sneaky long, sneaky smart. And very private. Over the years Morgan has spoken to friends about his vision, but never in much detail and never publicly until now.
As is often the case with a reserved, undemonstrative figure, there's more to Morgan than meets the eye. Look closely and you see a lively hop to his step. Listen closely and you pick up a way with words, a wry wit. Asked by a fan who thinks Morgan is a dentist if the golfer can help with a cavity, Morgan says the best he can do is work on the fellow's eyetooth. Driving by an Oklahoma field where the winter wheat is just coming up, Morgan talks about how it will look when the wheat ripens: "It sways in the wind like a golden sea."
Morgan was born and raised in Wewoka, Okla., 70 miles east of Oklahoma City. It's a town of 4,050, with lots of empty storefronts downtown. Wewoka had more pep when Morgan was growing up, but even then everybody knew everybody else. His father's monument business, Morgan and Sons Memorial, and his mother's restaurant, Morgan's Supper Club, née Morgan's Mug, were side by side on Suran Drive, directly across the road from their house.
Morgan, an only child, went to church every Sunday (Methodist), did his schoolwork and "always did as his father and mother told him. He never got in trouble," says Imogene Morgan, Gil's mother, who still lives in Wewoka. (Morgan's father, Gilmer, died in 1994.)
After graduating from Wewoka High in 1964, Morgan spent a summer taking courses at Oklahoma, in Norman, but was overwhelmed by the size of the student body. "We had only 88 in my high school class, so it was a big change to go where there were 20,000 students, and I transferred to East Central State [in Ada, Okla.]." He has never strayed far from home. He and his wife, Jeanine, live just 90 miles from Wewoka in Edmond with their three daughters, Molly, 17, Maggie, 15, and Melanie, 13.
Morgan gets his reserve from his mother. His zest for language, art and fast cars comes from his father. "Gilmer senior was a very strong personality," says John Norman, a family friend who played No. 1 to Gil's No. 2 on the Wewoka High team. "He may have been a little overwhelming to Gil in that respect, but he did everything to help his boy in sports. When the rest of us were wearing sneakers for football, Gil had a pair of cleats Gilmer bought him. Gilmer would park his car beside the practice green when it got dark and turn on the lights so Gil could practice bunker shots."
Was it only his eyes that kept Morgan from making it bigger on the regular Tour? Morgan thinks so, but others used to whisper that he lacked the killer instinct. "I'm not a very aggressive person," says Morgan, who admits that he wasn't comfortable with the take-no-prisoners mentality on the regular Tour. Ernie Vossler, a former Tour pro from Oklahoma who's the only person to have worked with Morgan on his game, and that on a very limited scale, says Morgan is "the nicest guy you'll ever know." That sentiment is echoed by everyone who knows him, including the Seniors he has been beating like a drum for the last two years.
So nice guys can be winners, after all. Morgan's aware that people say he's a big fish in a small pond, and he goes along with it. He's a straight shooter, and not just with his golf clubs. He defends the quality of the Senior tour like a good company man, but he also acknowledges that he has only five to eight guys to beat every week, not 25 or 30. With his considerable length off the tee and relative youth, he knows he has a golden opportunity. He knew it long before he got out among the Seniors, which is why he began preparing well in advance. Morgan is also very sensible.