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A Sight For Sore Eyes
Al Barkow
July 13, 1998
Once Gil Morgan compensated for his faulty vision, he saw his career take off
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July 13, 1998

A Sight For Sore Eyes

Once Gil Morgan compensated for his faulty vision, he saw his career take off

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So what's with Gil Morgan? Guy was on the regular Tour for 23 years, making a solid swing, but only won a few here and there, and no majors. Underachiever, right? No tiger in his tank. But now, all of a sudden, on the Senior circuit he's a top dog. Multi-multiwinner. True, the older-folks circuit is a different bargain. Not as much competition. But still, winning is a thing in and of itself, and here is Morgan, winning 10 times out of his first 40 Senior tour starts. So what happened? Did he wake up one morning with the secret? Did he have an epiphany? Did he take some kind of Viagra for competitive impotence?

None of the above. Well, not quite none. The Gil Morgan story has an evolutionary angle, a survival of the fittest twist—unfittest, actually—and an interesting irony.

Irony first. Morgan was born with an unusual case of hyperopia—farsightedness. What makes his condition unusual is not the degree of farsightedness, although it is not inconsiderable, but the disparity between his eyes. It's called anisometropia. His right eye is +2.75, but the left eye is +5.50. To understand the numbers in real-life terms, imagine you're looking through a device in which you see two equidistant objects, a pig with your right eye, a dog with your left. If you have normal vision, or just ordinarily imperfect eyesight, you will see two objects more or less together. If you are Morgan, you see the pig. However, for the left eye the object is so much smaller that your brain cannot reconcile the two objects, so you don't even see the dog. This is known as cortical rejection, or suppression.

Now for the irony. Morgan did not discover his anisometropia until he entered the Southern College of Optometry, in Memphis, in 1968. As part of his entrance orientation, his eyes were examined. He learned that he had a touch of astigmatism, which blurred things a bit. A more advanced test involved looking through the aforementioned stereoscopic device. "The examiners asked me to tell them what happened when I saw the pig and the dog," Morgan recalls. "I said, 'What dog?' "

He had been playing baseball, football and a lot of basketball since he was eight or nine, and golf since he was 15. But not until he took that eye exam at age 22 did he realize how poor his depth perception was. Only with the diagnosis of anisometropia could he begin to understand why, for example, he would get nothing but net from the forecourt (he could use the backboard as a visual clue to distance) and throw up air balls from the corners (he was shooting into a void). On the golf course, for uphill approach shots on which he couldn't see the surface of the green, only the pin against the sky, he couldn't judge the distance to the hole. On approach shots across a ravine, with the pin well back from the edge of the opposite rise, he saw the pin as being at the front edge of the rise, which explains why he hit so many iron shots on target but either well short of the pin or well past it. "When I started using the book," says Morgan, meaning the precise yardage information caddies and players now carry, "it made a definite difference in my approach-shot game." Golf is not just a game of numbers, though. It's also one of feel, and to buttress the yardage information, he found other ways to gain depth perception. He learned to use monocular clues—backdrops such as a tree, a fence, a grandstand or the shadows cast by these objects and by the pin.

Another aspect of Morgan's poor vision had an even bigger impact on his game, and he didn't fully understand the problem until much later in his career. Nobody wins much in the pros without consistently excellent putting. Most putts, of course, have some break in them, and Morgan cannot see undulations well, even with corrective lenses. Slopes tend to flatten out. As a result he's inclined not to borrow enough on breaking putts. The putts that give him the most trouble are the midrange ones, where pars are saved and birdies made. "From four to 12 feet, the breaks are usually very subtle and the hardest for me to read," says Morgan. "From inside three feet it's O.K. because even if there is some break, I'm still going to play inside the hole. I missed a lot from four to 12, 90 percent of the time below the hole."

Why wasn't the eye problem caught earlier? After all, his father, who began wearing glasses at six, had the same disorder, though it wasn't as severe. "I could read the test charts when I got eye examinations as a kid," Morgan says, "because the letters were far enough away, and it didn't seem to bother me playing sports."

Only after he discovered the difficulty 30 years ago did Morgan get a corrective prescription, but optometric technology was not as advanced as it has become, and Morgan's problem required very thick lenses—so thick that they distorted his vision. "The first time I tried hitting a golf ball with them was the last time," he says. "I caught it way out on the toe of the driver and knocked it out-of-bounds two fairways to the right. That was enough for me. The glasses were also too heavy and made playing in the rain a hassle." He wore the specs only for reading, which is how he got through the four-year optometry course.

He next tried contact lenses, but that technology wasn't as advanced as it is now either. "Not for farsightedness, anyway," Morgan says, "probably because most people are nearsighted and that's where most of the research is aimed." The first contacts Morgan tried were made of thick, hard plastic. "When I blinked, it was as if I had stones in my eyes," says Morgan. He nixed contacts until the late '70s, when thinner, softer lenses became available.

Now, consider this. While still in optometry school, Morgan was regularly shooting in the high 60s. In 1970 he tied for ninth in the U.S. Amateur, and in 1972 he played his one and only year of big-time amateur golf to see if he had the stuff for the pros. After becoming an optometrist, he set out for the Tour. He failed in his first try at Q school, in the fall of 1972, but he made it through the next year, finishing second to Ben Crenshaw. Playing without corrective lenses, Morgan kept his card until he began wearing contacts in '77.

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