Features: Conversation With...

Nov
2003

Seeing is Believing

An optometrist playing golf is hardly unusual. An ptometrist who plays as well as a Gil Morgan, however, is rare indeed.

Morgan, in fact, is a unique story in more ways than one. The 1972 graduate of Southern College of Optometry in Memphis has never actually practiced optometry. But that’s only because, after years of struggle, his career as a professional golfer has taken off.

“I’m not really sure what prompted me to pursue a degree in optometry,” Morgan admits now. “When I graduated college, I didn’t even understand optometry. But a family friend had gone to optometry school and when I talked about it with him, it sounded interesting. I always saw it as something great to fall back on if I ever needed it.”

Morgan viewed optometry as a fallback option because, by the time he had finished his studies at Southern, he knew professional golf was his calling. He only doubted whether he was good enough to answer it.

Unlike most professional golfers—Tiger Woods, for instance—Morgan didn’t grow up a prodigy on the links. A native of Wewoka, Okla., a small town situated in the rolling hills in the central part of the state, Morgan only played the town’s nine-hole municipal course occasionally growing up, focusing instead on football, basketball and summer-league baseball through junior high and high school.

“The only time I played golf was in the off-season from those sports and that wasn’t very much,” he recalls. “I wasn’t a very good player, either.”
Morgan took the game more seriously after he graduated high school and enrolled at East Central (Okla.) University. At 5 foot 9 inches, he realized he was too small to play football or basketball at the college level. “For whatever reason, there weren’t a lot of upperclassmen on the East Central golf team when I was there, so I had the opportunity to play and compete a lot when I was there.”

And anyone who’s ever played golf knows how much one’s game can improve with practice and regular play. By the time he graduated college and entered Southern, Morgan was recording Top 10 finishes in national amateur tournaments. During his time in optometry school, he would play on weekends and in local and national amateur tournaments in the summers. When he graduated in 1972, he felt he had had enough success as an amateur to give a professional golf career a shot. A corporate sponsor agreed and signed him to a three-year contract to turn professional.

“Every kid who golfs dreams of winning the US Open when he’s practicing,” Morgan notes. “I was a late bloomer. I had the dream later in life than most, but I had it. I decided to give myself those three years to see if I made it.”

Morgan qualified for the PGA Tour in 1973, and by his second year was in the Top 60 on the Tour money list. He won his first tournament—the BC Open—in 1977 and had five more victories in the late-1970s and early 1980s (including the $100,000 World Series of Golf in 1978) before a torn rotator cuff had him thinking about putting that optometry degree to good use. He had kept up with his continuing education requirements and even attended professional meetings, signing autographs and holding putting clinics for American Optical and Johnson & Johnson, among others.

But he refused to give up his dream that easily. After struggling for several years, Morgan finally garnered a Tour victory again in 1990, taking the Kemper Open. In 1996, he joined the PGA’s Senior Tour (now called the “Champions Tour”) for players over 50 years of age and, in true late-bloomer fashion, his game took off. To date, he has posted 22 Champions Tour victories (compared to seven on the PGA Tour) and is recognized as one of the best to ever play the circuit. He is second all-time in Tour winnings—earning more than $11 million for his career—and that nine-hole course in his hometown now bears his name.

“I finally feel like I’ve put my game together,” says Morgan, who is 57 and still lives in Oklahoma with his wife Jeanine, with whom he has three children. “Golf is a tough game mentally and that’s really where I’ve changed. I’ve matured. Today, I feel better about my knowledge of the game than I ever did earlier in my career.”

Morgan has kept his knowledge of optometry current as well, even though he finally allowed his license to lapse in 1996, once he found consistent success on the Champions Tour. He has given back to his alma mater in recent years through the annual Gil Morgan Golf Classic, raising more than $50,000 in two years for Southern’s Spurgeon B. Eure, OD Memorial Scholarship Fund. Morgan, who considers Dr. Eure a mentor, spends time with all of the individual donors at his eponymous tournament, offering golf instruction and signing autographs.

“I still keep up with the profession, even today,” he says. “But it’s a lot harder now than when I graduated. Optometry has changed so much, with pharmacology and LASIK entering the mix and the improvement in contact lens technology.”

But Morgan still knows enough about vision and eyecare to advise other Tour players on correction options and even contact lens insertion and removal. And, he credits his knowledge of how the eye works with making his game what it is today. He is not a spectacle-wearer, he says, because he doesn’t “like the intrusion of the frame” and believes “sunlenses distort too much color.” It was the advent of contact lenses to address his prescription (he is a +2.75D in his right eye and +5.25D in his left eye, with astigmatism) that enabled him to reach his potential on the course. He describes himself as an “eccentric fixator” with poor depth perception.

“As contact lenses improved, so did my play on the Tour,” he explains. “And with my optometry background, I knew what to look for. I finally have a grasp of the importance of vision in the game. I used to miss a lot of putts, misread the slopes on the greens. Now I know what’s going on and I know that my vision is a factor in where my game is today.” He adds with a laugh, “I knew my optometry degree would pay off.” And how.

 

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