In his 40s, Walter Morgan used to beat US Open and Senior US Open champion Orville Moody so consistently that he knew he’d be successful once he joined the Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour) in 1991. He eventually won four tournaments with his self-taught, “handsy” swing. Morgan did two tours of duty in Vietnam, an experience that left him impervious to tournament pressure: “There was nobody shooting at me out there on the golf course, so there was no pressure on me. I was enjoying the heck out of it.” I hope you’ll enjoy the heck out of this interview with Walter Morgan, a man who served his country for 20 years … and as a professional golfer, had command of his ball at all times.
Golf Conversations: I see you were born in Haddock, GA. What was that like … a town of 2000?
Walter Morgan: Not even that. Nothing but 500. It’s 11 miles from Milledgeville, GA; that’s where that Pittsburgh quarterback got in trouble at Georgia College.
GC: Haddock in 1941, that’s as far away as you can get from the rest of the world.
WM: No, it’s not! It’s just outside of Macon, GA.
WM: Yeah! Haddock is right between Macon and Milledgeville.
GC: Did they ever do that old joke: what do you take for a haddock? I take two aspirin.
WM: No. (laughter)
GC: See … if I grew up in Haddock, I’d be doing that joke all that time and would probably get beaten up.
What did your parents do when you were growing up?
WM: My dad was a heavy equipment operator. And my momma worked for the canning plant.
GC: Brothers and sisters?
WM: Yeah. Two brothers and one sister.
GC: Were you the baby?
WM: No, I’m the third one.
GC: Ok, you were born in 1941. Segregation was still in effect in Georgia?
WM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
GC: What was that like?
WM: I really didn’t experience it. Because in a small town like that, everybody got along. I went to school with the black people but I played with the white kids. We did everything together; they didn’t mind. I’d stay at their house. It was a small town, everybody knew about it. We didn’t see that, really.
GC: But you had the “whites only” water fountains?
WM: Yeah. And bathrooms and all that stuff. That was in the town. You go into Macon or Milledgeville, you had to deal with that kind of stuff. In Haddock, we didn’t have that problem. ‘Cause we didn’t have a bus station and all that kind of stuff.
GC: But you guys got along, the white people and the black people?
WM: Oh, yeah, yeah.
GC: So why can’t you package that and sell it to everyone?
WM: Well, that’s true. It’s the same like today – all the old people that’s grown up – the black and the white, they all remember the old days, they still get along. It’s never changed.
GC: So you didn’t experience any signs of racism or discrimination growing up?
WM: None whatsoever.
GC: That probably lasted until you got into the outside world…
WM: That’s right. When I left Haddock, that’s right.
GC: When did you start getting interested in golf?
WM: I was in the military for about 10 years before I started playing golf.
GC: So growing up in Haddock… golf never occurred to you?
WM: No. I played baseball.
GC: What position did you play?
WM: I played outfield. That was my thing, baseball.
GC: That’s interesting that golf just never…
WM: Well, I wasn’t exposed to it. There was a golf course not too far away; my brother caddied there and my momma let me go up there every now and then. But I didn’t caddy too much, a few times. I had to go to church (laughter) and on Saturdays and Sundays, I was playing baseball.
GC: Was your brother interested in golf?
WM: Yeah. He played but you know, he couldn’t play. He was a caddy, but he couldn’t play.
GC: But you were not interested in golf at all?
WM: No. I was strictly baseball. That was my game.
GC: Who were some of your baseball heroes?
WM: I watched guys like Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Bob Gibson, those guys.
GC: I was a big Juan Marichal fan. I used to try to do that high kick of his and look the other way.
GC: I liked to do Willie Mays, too. I tried doing his basket catch and it would always hit me in the stomach.
Ok, so there you were in Haddock, you’re in high school, what were you thinking about, “Gee, what am I going to do when I graduate?”
WM: Well, I had an opportunity to go to a black college and play baseball.
GC: Which one was that?
WM: Albany State.
GC: You must have been pretty good.
WM: I was a good ball player but … it was grants then, it wasn’t scholarships, they gave you a grant. You had to pay the money back. So I thought, “I’ll just go in the military.” I had planned on going into the military and then getting out and going to school on the G.I. Bill. But I got into it and I just loved what I was doing, so I decided to stay in there.
GC: You joined the Army?
WM: Right out of high school.
GC: Where did you do your basic training?
WM: Fort Riley, Kansas.
GC: Was that the first time you’d ever been out of Haddock?
WM: No, I’d been out of Haddock. (laughing) But it was cold as hell there in Fort Riley, I’ll tell you that! Coldest place I’ve ever been.
Actually, I was inducted through Atlanta to Fort Jackson, South Carolina to Fort Riley, Kansas.
GC: What year was this?
GC: You enjoyed the Army?
WM: Yeah. I did.
GC: What did you like about it?
WM: I was young, man, so I just liked doing different things. At Fort Jackson, I played baseball. And after the baseball season was over, they sent me to Fort Riley. I got off the bus at Fort Riley and the captain asked, “We got any baseball players here?” So a couple of us made the baseball team there. I was playing sports my whole career.
GC: You were good with the glove, how were you with the stick?
WM: I was excellent with the stick.
GC: Excellent with the stick!
WM: Power hitter.
GC: All fields?
WM: All fields.
GC: Ok, you’re in Fort Riley, and Vietnam is kind of happening in the background. We had some advisers there but no troops.
WM: Yeah, it was in the background. We went to Korea from Fort Riley. We spent 13 months over there and got extended to 16 months because of the Cuban Missile crisis. I left there and went to Fort Davis, Massachusetts, that was my next assignment. Then I got out of the Army. I was out for about two weeks. I went home, my girlfriend got married, so I went right back in.
GC: Your girlfriend got married? I guess you didn’t know that she wasn’t your girlfriend?
WM: I didn’t know. I went to see her on that Saturday when I got home and I told her, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I went to see her Sunday afternoon and she had gotten married Sunday morning.
GC: You were a civilian for only two weeks and said, “Ok, nothing going on here.”
WM: That’s right.
GC: So you re-upped.
WM: Re-upped. Went back in.
GC: What year was this?
GC: We were talking before about discrimination and racism – you didn’t witness that growing up in Haddock. What was it like in the Army?
WM: I didn’t have a problem in the Army. But once you got off base, you had to be careful. But as long as you were on post, you had no problem.
GC: Now it’s 1964 and Vietnam is heating up.
WM: Yeah, but I didn’t get to Vietnam until 1966, 1967. And then 1970-71. I was there twice. I went to Panama in ’64. Then they sent me from Panama to California to drill sergeant school. And I went from drill sergeant school to Vietnam. I didn’t do a full tour the first time. But I was there long enough to get shot at. I was in the infantry, I was in combat.
GC: Did you see a lot of action?
WM: Oh, man. More than my share. Yeah.
GC: I was in high school at the time; they were starting to wind it down then. But there were anti-war protests going on in the country. Were you guys aware of that while you were in Vietnam?
WM: Oh, yeah.
GC: What did you think of our involvement there?
WM: I didn’t think we should have been there. No. I thought it was President Johnson’s wife was the reason we were there. ‘Cause she had all them ships and stuff sending her stuff over there; she’s the one that had all those ships over there. She was making the money.
GC: Her family owned ships?
WM: Yeah. I thought it was a political thing.
GC: It must have been difficult to have been in Vietnam … people are trying to kill you and you don’t really believe in what you’re doing, you don’t believe you’re fighting for a purpose.
WM: Yeah, but you couldn’t think that way. You gotta go over there and stay alive. You gotta do what you gotta do. You don’t think about “why am I here?” You’re there, you joined the Army, you signed your name, you’re gonna go where they send you. You gotta job to do. That’s the way I looked at it. I signed my name on the dotted line. I asked to be there, really.
GC: The drill sergeant training you were getting back in the States, did you get a chance to use that?
WM: Yeah, I was a drill sergeant. I trained kids. At Fort Ord, California.
GC: Fort Ord, home of the Bayonet Course. At that point, golf was still not on the radar?
WM: No, no, not at that time. I was playing baseball right there in Fort Ord for the Seaside Bombers.
GC: That’s just north of Pebble Beach. Isn’t that funny that you were at Fort Ord; little did you know in 20 years or so you’d be playing professional golf in that area.
WM: That’s true.
GC: Ok, you got out of Vietnam in one piece, thank goodness. Were you in the Army for 20 years?
WM: I was in for 20. I spent some time in Texas, Hawaii, and Fort Lewis, Washington before I retired from the Army.
GC: What were you doing?
WM: I ran a golf course at Fort Hood and Fort Lewis, Washington.
GC: How did you come to run golf courses if you didn’t know anything about golf?
WM: By that time, I was into golf. After Vietnam, I was into golf. I started playing golf in the late ’60s when I was in Hawaii. I had been playing baseball; the baseball field and the golf course were next to each other. During my days off, I’d go out and hit golf balls and got hooked on the game. The Army cut out baseball in the late ’60s so that’s when I started playing golf … in ’68, ’69.
GC: You just picked it up, no lessons, no books?
WM: No lessons. Nope. When I’d go to the golf course, I’d listen to the pro who was giving a lesson. I’d listen to some of the stuff he’d say, but I’d do my own thing. To this day, I still haven’t had a lesson. I’m self taught.
GC: What kind of grip did you use?
WM: I used the overlap.
GC: So you just watched someone…
WM: I started with the interlock then I went to the overlap. It’s not that different from holding a baseball bat…
GC: Just move the fingers around a little bit?
GC: Because you were a good hitter in baseball, would you say that you had a “handsy” golf swing?
WM: Oh, yeah.
GC: So there was no golf instruction theory you were contemplating? It was just like baseball to you but at a different angle?
WM: Right. And I used the tennis theory to control the golf ball. Make it fade, you flip your hands this way; you want to it to go straight, you move your hands that way. That’s what I’d do with the golf club: if I moved my hands going straight back-straight through, my ball’s gonna go straight. If I turned them over a little bit, my ball’s gonna go left. It’s gonna go right, if I come across it. I’m a hands player, I control it with my hands. That’s also the bowling theory.
GC: And this was all from “digging it out of the dirt,” as Hogan used to say?
WM: Oh, yeah.
GC: Where’d you get your first clubs?
WM: When I first started, I went to the PX and bought a set of Sam Snead Blue Ridge clubs: 3, 5, 7, 9, wedge. Wait, I don’t think it had a wedge. It was a 3, 5, 7, 9, putter, driver and a 3-wood.
GC: Sam Snead? That was Wilson?
WM: Blue Ridge. Wilson, yeah.
GC: Tell me about golf in the Army.
WM: I won the All Army and then I won the All Service twice, back to back.
GC: What years were these?
WM: 1975 & 1976.
GC: Where were the championships held?
WM: The first was at Camp LaJeune, North Carolina when I won the All Service; that was in 1975. The next year, I won the All Army and the All Service at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
GC: Obviously, you must have improved very quickly.
WM: I was a 3-handicap in six months’ time. But I hit golf balls for months before I even went on a golf course.
GC: What did it feel like the first time you actually played golf after spending months on the range? Was it the same feeling as hitting range balls?
WM: Pretty much. You had to learn the distance control. Other than that, it was pretty simple.
GC: Because, you know, most golfers are great on the range and then they get on the golf course and the whole thing falls apart.
WM: Oh, yeah. It came pretty easy for me.
GC: I hate guys like you, you know that?
WM: Some of us got, and some of us don’t!
GC: And that’s what I’ve always thought: you have to have a natural ability to play golf. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what’s most frustrating about golf for the average terrible player is that he’ll hit lousy shots on the course but once in a while he’ll hit a good shot. And it makes him think: “Hmmm, I can do this; I’m sure with a little practice, I can do it again.” But I don’t think that’s the case.
WM: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
GC: You have to have that gift.
GC: It took me 17 years to figure that one out!
I marvel at people like you who are great golfers. But I still hate you.
Ok, how did you make the jump from the Army to the Senior PGA Tour?
WM: When I got out of the Army, I knew some of the guys that were playing on that tour. Guys like Orville Moody. I’d beaten those guys.
GC: You beat Moody, the US Open Champion?
WM: Yeah. When Moody was in the Army, he lived in Texas so he played out of Fort Hood. Then when he went on tour, he was still living there and he’d come back home and I used to play him all the time. I used to kick his butt. And I was still learning the game at that time, too.
GC: And he’d been playing for a long time.
WM: Yeah. I beat him so bad one day, he said, “I wish you could go out there and play for me.”
He always had this game that he tried to beat people with: we both hit two balls; I hit my best ball and he’d play his worst ball. And he gave me 2-up and I told him, “You can’t beat me in this game; there’s no way.”
So he said, “Well, I got $300 says I can.”
Four holes, five holes, he was out. And he gave me 2-up, too. I just flat-out killed him. And then he said, “I’ll just play you for another $200 even from here in.”
I said “no” and left with my money.
He ran his mouth. And I told him, “When I turn 50, I’ll be up there with you.”
GC: And how old were you then?
WM: I was in my 40s then.
GC: So in your 40s, you were working on your game?
WM: Yeah. I was working at a golf course in Fort Hood, Texas. Then I ran a couple of civilian courses. But I’d always run into Moody. I quit my job when I was 49 and started playing on the Texas tour to get ready. Then I went to the Qualifying School and made it on my first try.
GC: First try. Fabulous. Do you remember the golf course where they had the Q School?
WM: It was in Texas, somewhere in Dallas. I got my card down in Florida at the Golf Club of Miami.
GC: I’m confused.
WM: I went to a regional in Texas and the finals were at Golf Club of Miami.
GC: Got it. So Orville Moody wins the US Open … years later he wins the Senior US Open. And you had his number. That must have done something for your confidence.
WM: Oh, yeah. I knew I could beat him. He couldn’t putt. Shoot, I used to kill him.
GC: Was he like lunch money?
WM: Oh, yeah, he was lunch money.
GC: Wasn’t he the first guy to use the long putter?
WM: Actually, Charley Owens was the first guy to use it, but Moody was the first one to take it on tour. Charley Owens was the black guy with the fused knee; he got into an accident when he was a paratrooper. He had to stand straight, he walked with a stiff leg. He played cross-handed.
GC: Your first year on tour… where was your first tournament?
WM: The very first tournament that I played in was in Syracuse, NY at Lafayette Country Club. I qualified on a Monday, that was the very first one. But for the tour, when I got my card, we started in Florida. That’s when I went out with Charlie Sifford; we traveled together. I can’t remember if we started in Miami or Naples, but it was in Florida.
GC: And Mr. Sifford was no spring chicken at that point, right?
WM: He was up there in his ‘60s. He’s about 86 now.
GC: How’s he doing, how’s his health?
WM: He’s having some problems with his kidneys.
GC: Ok, back to the first tournament. Can you remember how you felt on the first tee, hitting that first drive?
WM: It was like another golf game to me. I wasn’t excited. I think going through what I’d been through, I didn’t feel any pressure.
GC: Because of Vietnam?
WM: Oh, yeah. There was nobody shooting at me out there on the golf course, so there was no pressure on me. I was enjoying the heck out of it.
GC: You didn’t have to go through what Mr. Sifford went through with all the terrible experiences he had trying to play professional golf.
WM: No. I didn’t have to go through that. I went through a little bit of it but nothing like what he went through.
GC: What kind of experiences did you have?
WM: Well, I was called “caddy” and stuff like that. “Who are you caddying for?” “You can’t park here, this is for players.” That kind of stuff. It didn’t take long to work that out. They found out pretty quick who I was.
GC: How did you do in that first tournament?
WM: I played good. (laughter) I was having problems with the fast greens when I first went out there. I had to get adjusted to the greens and the different types of grasses. It took me a while to get used to that. As soon as I got adjusted to that stuff, it was pretty simple.
GC: What was the best part of your game?
WM: I think it was my tee ball. I never missed a fairway.
WM: I hit a lot of greens but every now and then I’d miss a green and it seemed like when I did, I missed to the wrong side. Short-sided myself. But I was a good putter. I didn’t have too many shortcomings.
GC: Were you able to get any sponsors when you started out?
WM: I really didn’t want any. The only endorsement I had was with Callaway. I don’t think I got what I deserved in endorsements. Those other guys, they had stuff all over themselves. I won a tournament and I didn’t get anything different than what I already had.
GC: How did you get the deal with Callaway? Did they come after you?
WM: Yeah. They came after me, they had a man out there on tour. But they paid you the minimum. Some guys were getting big money and you were getting the crumbs.
GC: Did you have to do outings for them?
WM: Yeah. You had to do outings.
GC: What was that like?
WM: I enjoyed those outings; it was fun.
GC: What clubs did you use your first year on tour?
WM: I was playing the Palmer Peerless.
GC: I remember those.
WM: And then I got a deal with Ram.
GC: Did these companies pay you to use their clubs?
WM: Yeah, they gave you a little bit. Actually, the best company was Ping. Because whatever you made that year, that’s what Ping matched.
WM: But that didn’t last long. They stopped that real quick.
Yeah, they stopped that real quick.
GC: So you were touring with Mr. Sifford for the first year or for subsequent years?
WM: The whole time I was out there, we traveled together. In fact, when I qualified, I was living in Texas, and he was living in Texas. He called and told me to come down to Houston and ride with him. We traveled together for the Florida tour. I didn’t know him; didn’t know who he was. But he found out who I was.
GC: He found you; that’s interesting.
WM: There wasn’t too many black players out there, see. He took me in his arms and taught me the ropes. I owe everything I learned to him. He taught me the places to stay, the places to go, places not to go. Golf course management, he taught me all that. We played our practice rounds together every week. He was a tough competitor. It got to one point where I had to play him and another guy, two super seniors. They were tough to beat, too.
GC: Did he turn you on to cigars?
WM: I was smoking cigars before I went out there.
GC: Ok. Sorry!
How long were you two touring together? A couple of years?
WM: No. I was there until he left. We toured together until he left. I was out there until 2004 and he left around the late ’90s. We toured from 1992 until he left.
GC: You drove around the country?
WM: No, we didn’t drive together. Just when there was a short distance, we drove. We might drive in NY, next week in Boston, they gave us courtesy cars. We’d either drive together or follow each other. If you were in Florida, they’d give you a car and you could take it to the whole Florida tour.
GC: Courtesy cars; that’s a lot different from when Mr. Sifford was coming up.
WM: Yep. They didn’t have courtesy cars back then. You had to have your own car.
GC: Or horse.
WM: And most of them had to drive from tournament to tournament because they couldn’t afford to fly.
GC: Did you have a regular caddy when you played?
WM: Most of the time I did. But after a while you get rid of them and get somebody else. Nothing permanent.
GC: You change caddies because you’re not playing well and you think it’s time for a change?
WM: Not that, but sometimes they get a little sassy and so you have to get rid of them. They think they know more than you do, so they’ve got to go.
GC: Like what? What would they say to you?
WM: They tell you how to play your game.
GC: What would he say, “this shot’s a 6 iron” and you’d disagree with him?
WM: Yeah. He doesn’t know how I’m gonna hit it. I tell him, “You just give me the yardage, what I got to the pin, the back of the green, just give me that. I know what club to hit and I know how I’m gonna hit it and you don’t.” You don’t know if I’m gonna cut it, take a little bit off it. I can take a 5-iron and hit it 200 yards. I can take a 5-iron, hit it 150 yards. You don’t know. You can’t tell me how to hit it. Or what club to hit.
GC: That reminds me of a Sam Snead story. He was playing in a tournament and the guy he was playing with kept sneaking a look to see what club Snead was using. So on a short par 3, Snead feathers a 2-iron on to green. The other guy sees 2-iron, takes too much club, and hits his shot over the green. He stopped looking at Snead’s club selection after that.
But that’s kind of a lost art today, don’t you think?
WM: Yeah. That’s true. Some of those older players still do it. Tiger can do it.
GC: Did you become buddies with any of the guys on the tour besides Mr. Sifford?
WM: I had friends with just about everybody out there. We were all good friends.
GC: Guys you’re still in touch with?
WM: Every now and then I’ll talk to someone. Bob Murphy, Jim Colbert, Dave Stockton. When they come to the Rock Barn tournament up here, I go there and holler at them.
GC: Stockton has been in the news the last year with his supposed putting secrets.
WM: Yeah. He’s always been a great putter.
GC: So what’s the secret?
WM: Putting is an art. I think it’s just keeping your body still. You can’t be moving all over the place.
GC: What about all the different theories: straight back-straight through, take it inside-square- to inside … what do you think?
WM: Long as you got that putter square at impact, that’s what it amounts to. It’s about line and speed. It doesn’t matter how you get it there, as long as you get it there. Some people do it different ways. But I think the reason why a lot of people putt so bad is because they’re moving all over the place. You gotta do the same thing all the time; you gotta keep that body still. If you watch guys like Tiger, the only thing that’s moving is [his shoulders] … not his body.
GC: You would think that something like that wouldn’t be that difficult to do.
WM: It is though.
GC: Keep your body still. It’s not as complicated as the full swing. Why is it so difficult? Walter, I’m begging you: why is this game so hard?
WM: You gotta think; a lot of people can’t think. They can’t screw and chew at the same time.
GC: How did it feel when you won that first tournament?
WM: Shoot, it felt great. It really didn’t hit me until I won the second one. Then they couldn’t say the first one was a fluke. And when I won the next one six months later, nobody could say I was a fluke.
GC: You were player of the month, right?
WM: Yeah, I was player of the month three times.
GC: How did it feel when you got that first winner’s check?
WM: Oh, man, that was great. That was great. It’s a feeling I can’t explain. I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of when.
GC: How long did it take to get your first win?
WM: Five years.
GC: The Senior Tour didn’t have cuts so you always made a check. But when did you start making some real money before you won?
WM: I started making good money my third year when I was getting used to everything. I became more consistent, that was the thing.
GC: What brought about the consistency?
WM: Just feeling comfortable with the courses I was playing. And the travel and all that stuff.
GC: You weren’t intimidated by any of these famous golfers?
WM: I wasn’t intimidated from day one.
GC: Because of what you’d been through in Vietnam?
GC: Was your first check one of those big cardboard checks?
WM: Oh, yeah.
GC: You didn’t try to cash that thing, did you? Endorse it on the back with a paint brush?
WM: No, I still got it!
GC: Then, after a few years, the injuries started?
WM: Yeah, shoulders, back, shoulders … every day you got some different pain. You start getting old.
GC: I’m getting arthritis in my fingers from hitting golf balls all these years.
WM: I’ve got that too; my fingers start locking up on me. If you’ve been to the places I’ve been, and done what I’d done … going up and down those hills in those jungles in Vietnam … sleeping in those holes … the wear and tear on your body, something’s got to happen. A lot of miles, man.
GC: What year did you decide to hang it up?
WM: 2004. My back got so bad, I just couldn’t play.
GC: And then you got involved with the local First Tee?
WM: We did that for five years. I decided that was enough; it was kind of hard getting funds. You kind of get tired of going to the same people over and over. It got to a point where we couldn’t continue to put money into it. It started hitting our pocket pretty good. We couldn’t do it by ourselves.
GC: You were doing most of the funding?
WM: Yep. At the end I was.
GC: Ok, what was the nicest golf course you every played?
WM: Shoot, they’re all nice. When you’re playing for that money, they’re all nice!
I liked every one of them!