Oak Tree National director of golf Steve Kimmel once asked Gil Morgan if there was a player’s swing Morgan envied, someone like Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller or Fred Couples. Morgan pondered the question before deciding his ball-striking was never an issue.
Morgan, the man who possessess one of the purest swings in golf, is nearing the end of a remarkable career.
His legacy is he’s one of a handful of professional golfers to play at an extremely high level for 40 years.
Playing on his home course, the 67-year-old optometrist from Wewoka will be one of the crowd favorites this week at the U.S. Senior Open, which begins Thursday at Oak Tree National.
“Coming from a small town with a nine-hole golf course, I never played much in high school. I just piddled around with it a little,” Morgan said. “I really didn’t start playing until college, so it has been quite a ride considering how late I started playing.”
Before he turned 60, the goler others call “Doc” played in 768 events on the two major circuits. The East Central University product finished first, second or third an astonishing 122 times. That means that before Morgan became an official AARP member, Morgan finished first, second or third one out of every six tournaments over a 30-year span.
“My first 11 years on the PGA Tour only once did I finish out of the top 10 on the (annual) earnings list,” Morgan said. “Being consistent was something I’ve always taken pride in.”
Morgan has collected 40 career pro wins, including seven on the PGA Tour. He owns the third-most titles (25) in Champions Tour history.
“Gil has sort of gone under the radar,” said longtime veteran Corey Pavin. “If you look really closely he’s had some really nice accomplishments. It’s not easy winning, even on the Champions Tour. Plus, he’s an incredibly nice man who is very humble which is maybe why he sometimes gets overlooked.”
Bob Tway, another local favorite who plays out of Oak Tree, said Morgan’s career rarely receives the attention it deserves.
“He’s always had a really great swing, a great ball-striker,” Tway said. “He makes it look like he’s hardly had to work at it to have that smooth a swing for 40 years. If he would have been a great putter he’d have won many, many more tournaments.”
Over his career, Morgan has made a remarkable 782 cuts, a sizzling 85 percent clip since he turned pro in the mid-1970s.
Because his most dominant days were on the Champions Tour, it’s sometimes forgotten Morgan also finished first, second or third in 49 PGA Tour events in an era when a wave of talented, young star players made it more difficult to make Sunday leaderboards.
“My fundamentals have been good for a long time,” Morgan said. “I’ve always had great hand-eye coordination, which always has been a huge factor for me.”
Morgan’s picturesque swing was best described by Tom Purtzer in a national article 30 years ago.
“We were playing a practice round,” Purtzer was quoted in 1988. “Gil, as usual, was striking it perfectly. I asked him the last time he didn’t hit a solid shot … We walked about 50 yards from the tee box Gil turned and said, ‘Memphis. Three years ago.’ … And he was dead serious.”
Unlike modern-day golfers, who often play competitively on the junior circuit before they’re teenagers, Morgan didn’t start playing golf until age 15.
Like most kids in the 1970s, Morgan played all sports. He was Wewoka’s starting quarterback and averaged 14 points per game on the basketball team.
“I really liked basketball. I had a really good touch and feel,” Morgan said. “I was All-Conference but I was only five-foot-seven. I wasn’t sure I was good enough to play basketball at the college level. That’s when I started focusing on golf.”
As Morgan’s golf game steadily improved his father, Gilmer, challenged his son to test his game.
“It started when my dad said, ‘You’re good enough to win around here, but can you win on the state level?’” Morgan said. “After I started playing well on a state level he challenged (me) to try and play well on the national level.
“Even when I eventually was playing regularly on the PGA Tour he’d say things like, ‘You’re good enough to play on the tour but can you beat Arnold Palmer?’ Who knows what might have happened if my dad hadn’t pushed me.”
For many golf fans, the defining moment of Morgan’s career was an up-and-down adventure at the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Experiencing one of his highest highs and lowest lows that weekend 22 years ago, Morgan became the first player in U.S. Open history to go 10-under par early in his round on Saturday. He faded to minus-4 on Saturday. He still led going into Sunday but shot an 81 the final round to finish 13th.
“I’ll always have mixed emotions on what happened but you try to focus on what you’ve accomplished over your entire career,” Morgan said. “I’ve been truly blessed to be able to golf for a living.”
Potential Hall of Famer?
Tway joked several weeks ago at the U.S. Senior Open Media Day the ideal scenario next Sunday would be Morgan sinks a putt on 18, hoists the trophy and rides off into the sunset on a horse.
Without a PGA Tour major on his resume, Morgan doubts he’ll make the Hall of Fame, but he has won three Champions Tour majors — the Tradition in 1997 and 1998 and the Senior Players Championship in 1998.
Tway believes Morgan’s consistency should receive more consideration among Hall of Fame voters.
“I don’t think people pay enough attention to what a player does on the Champions Tour,” Tway said. “He won 25 times, which is unbelievable. They had to change the Tournament of Champions rules that one year because he and Hale Irwin won about 10 tournaments each. They had to add some people or they’d have been about the only ones there.”
Putting has always Morgan’s Achilles’ heel. He consistently ranked among the PGA Tour leaders in greens in regulation but usually was far down the list for putts per round.
“I had so many seconds and thirds I always felt if I could have putted like Jack Nicklaus or Lee Trevino I’d won have a lot more tournaments,” Morgan said. “A lot of times I was just one or two shots off (the lead). Make just one more putt here and I probably could have won a lot more.
“Obviously you can’t have the type of career I’ve had by putting poorly but it was never really where I needed it to be. My shot-making was always at a high level. If I could have putted a little better who knows how many wins I would have had.”
David Edwards no longer plays professional golf, but he was one of the original Oak Tree members when the course burst onto the national scene in the 1980s. That’s when Edwards became friends with Morgan.
“Doc has never been a flamboyant guy,” Edwards said. “He’s one of those guys it’s fun to play golf with. His career speaks for itself. He’s been so consistent through the years. He never tinkered with his swing much. His philosophy was always pretty simple.”
Morgan plans to continue to play on the Champions Tour but might skip the majors in 2015 because it’s more difficult for his body to grind through four rounds in the heat.
“Right now I don’t have any plans to retire,” Morgan said. “I have 12 (tournaments) on the schedule this year. Next year if I feel well I’ll probably 10 or more tournaments. I still enjoy playing golf.”
Even though he hasn’t won a tournament in seven years, Morgan said Oak Tree is the type of course conducive to ball-strikers, a 7,219-yard, par-71 layout where length isn’t as huge a variable.
“If you can keep it out of the rough, the junk and avoid the wrong side of the green you have a chance,” Morgan said. “I don’t think the scores will be very low. It will depend on the wind and the heat but it’s a very difficult golf course.
“It’s a plus to know the course but it’s kind of a wash because there’s also added pressure of wanting to do well, especially at this point in my career. If I was 50 or 55 it would be a whole different game. My game would be better. It’s all part of the aging process but it would be exciting to make a run on your home course.”