Finally, a little payback for Morgan at Pebble Beach

September 03, 2007
Lauren Deason Editorial Coordinator

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The close of the Wal-Mart First Tee Open at Pebble Beach resembles the bittersweet end of summer camp. After a highly anticipated week, the juniors exchange hugs and numbers and suitcases appear where golf bags once sat.

Category Total Rank
Driving Distance 282.8 yds. 11
Driving Accuracy 65.64% 57
Greens in Regulation 71.60% 7
Putts per Round 29.94 59
Sand Saves 44.00% 51
Scoring Average 70.90 18
Money Leaders $940,878 12

Youth invaded the hallowed grounds of Pebble Beach Golf Links for the fourth annual tournament -- where 78 juniors from First Tee chapters across the country had a chance to play with Champions Tour pros -- but it was the older gentlemen on Tour who stole the show.

In a battle between 60-year-old Gil Morgan and 62-year-old Hale Irwin, Morgan finally edged Irwin to earn a title at Pebble Beach 15 years in the making. To put that into perspective, most of the teens at the tournament were in diapers when Morgan played those fateful four days.

"(Hale and I are) not two First Tees here," Morgan joked after playing a bogey-free final round to shoot 67 on Sunday, 14-under 202 for the tournament.

The story of his demise at the 1992 U.S. Open held at Pebble Beach is a tragic one. Leading the tournament by three strokes after 36 holes, Morgan made history by becoming the first to reach 10 under par in an Open, then 11 under, then 12 under by making birdie on No. 7.

From there it was all downhill, as he made three double bogeys, three bogeys and just one par to close out Saturday. He maintained a one-stroke lead heading into Sunday, but made two double bogeys and subsequently shot an 81 in the final round to lose to Tom Kite.

On Sunday, however, Morgan got a bit of retribution.

"My putt at No. 5 kind of [circled] around the hole and went in, then the putt at No. 16 went around hole and went in," he said. "I was thinking maybe Pebble Beach is feeling sorry enough for me to let me survive another day here. Maybe they gave me a reprieve this time at Pebble."

For once it was Irwin chasing Morgan, since Irwin is the all-time leading tournament winner with 45 on the Champions Tour while Morgan just moved into solo third place with his 25th victory. Morgan won for nine consecutive years on the Champions Tour before falling short in 2005, when one of his three second-place finishes came at the Wal-Mart First Tee Open, a tournament won, coincidentally, by Irwin.

"(Sunday) I kept watching Hale -- he always seems to be there when I'm around," Morgan said. "Usually he ends up winning most of the time, so that was the difference in this one. He won a lot more than I did in those situations when we were neck and neck."

Despite making a double bogey on the first hole, one that came back to haunt him when he eventually lost by two strokes, Irwin -- in the group behind Morgan -- wasn't going down without a fight. He made birdie on No. 2, eagle on No. 6 and sunk a 21-footer on No. 13 to move back up the leaderboard.

"I hit a terrible tee shot at No. 1 and I knew I was in a big, big hole after that. I just couldn't pull that many rabbits out of the hat," Irwin said.

Though not watching the leaderboard intently, Morgan knew that Irwin was staying close at hand and that he had to avoid playing like it was 1992.

"Hale is a very good competitor and makes a lot of putts when playing well. I was fortunate to salvage a couple of pars when needed to and not give back any. I think that was the big difference today, not making a bogey," said Morgan, who had no bogeys on Sunday and just two during the tournament.

Putting woes have plagued Morgan throughout the year, but he pulled it together for the second straight week, following up a playoff loss at the Boeing Classic in Seattle with his win at Pebble Beach. Granted, who wasn't in the playoff at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge, where seven men made their way up the fairway on the first playoff hole before Denis Watson emerged as the winner, but Morgan was happy to be a part of the madness after earning just four top-10s in 2007.

"I played well last week and got in contention but gave it away at the last holes," Morgan said. "Today at least I felt like I hung in there and did the right things under the gun."

The win made Morgan -- who turns 61 later this month -- the eighth-oldest winner on the Champions Tour.

"I don't know whether I like that," Morgan said with a laugh. "I guess if you were the oldest you wouldn't mind that, but the eighth oldest, I'm not so sure if that's the best deal.

"It's always fun (to win) because, as you get older, you wonder whether you can win again. A couple of years ago I went without winning," he added. "Last year, Loren (Roberts) made a mistake and I was able to win at Des Moines (the 2006 Allianz Championship) ... but this week I felt like it was mine to lose or win coming down the stretch.

"As Hale kept making birdies, I kept thinking maybe not, because he has a tendency to make birdies at times," he said. "He is such a good player, but I felt like if I made a mistake then it was going to be my demise rather than someone else playing better."

As one of the veterans on the Champions Tour, Morgan enjoyed his opportunity to play with someone much younger than him.

"It's fun to be able to play with the kids ... it's so different from what we do out here at this point in time in our careers," he said. "They are always excited, eager to learn and they always come along with a smile on their face most of the time. They hit a few bad shots but they keep on coming back and that's the name of the game."

In the tournament within the tournament, Harold Varner and Morris Hatalsky came away with the trophy in the pro/junior competition. Varner, a 17-year-old from Gastonia, N.C., is looking forward to finishing his senior year of high school and hopes to play college golf.

Though in the January of his career where some of the Champions Tour pros are reaching their Decembers, Varner appreciated the opportunity to explore the mind of a professional. He made three straight birdies on Nos. 15-17, including a hitting a 6-iron within two feet of the pin on No. 17.

Describing that shot as "ridiculous" and "pretty phat" -- in teen-speak, that translates to "amazing" -- Varner learned from Hatalsky to work on his short game before he can make it to the PGA TOUR.

"[The pros] play a lot smarter game than I do, a lot smarter game than I do. They're great people, too, so you can't beat that."