As far as I could tell, Walter was Birkdale Golf Club’s Boo Radley – mysterious, detached, reclusive. He seemed to live among the woods of North Carolina pines, or maybe in the pond beside the second green, rising up out of the stagnant water every morning dressed in rubber coveralls with attached boots. I’d spot him in the strangest places – rummaging through the dense underbrush beside the 3rd fairway, or crouching across the swampy, snake-infested muck to the right of the 13th hole. He would hold a KJ Choi SuperStroke putter grip-sized cigar in his teeth as he slunk through the shadows of the property. He never made eye contact, he never talked, but he was always there.

After some asking around, I learned that Walter’s constant presence on the Birkdale grounds was in fact not nearly as mysterious as I’d thought. He was collecting lost golf balls. He’d find them, clean them, and resell them in the pro shop. All of the proceeds went to the local First Tee chapter that he had founded with his wife. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Walter had a philanthropic side, especially given his hermit-like behavior around Birkdale, but not nearly as surprised as I was to discover that Walter Morgan was a former Champions Tour player. If I’m honest, I couldn’t believe he was a golfer at all, not with such an apparent indifference to all the golf that was being played around him as he foraged for abandoned balls. A quick Google search was enough to quash my skepticism. Walter Morgan: Vietnam veteran, first round of golf at the age of 27, self-taught from the start, multiple record-holder on the Champions Tour, recipient of the African-American Legends of Golf award. The Birkdale recluse was actually a local hero.

A few weeks later, my friend and I were out for a casual round at Birkdale. As we approached our balls after laying up on the par five 5th hole, we spotted Walter, back facing the green, waving his ball retriever in large careful arcs through the murky water that guarded the front edge of the putting surface. I quickly filled my friend in on the Walter Morgan lore, and then we both proceeded to airmail the green with our wedges, landing our balls a good 15 yards past the flag and ending up with fried eggs in the back bunker. Walter never turned to look. He was fixated on the pond, oblivious to our presence.

As we approached the green, I decided to muster the courage to introduce myself. I rehearsed a few simple opening lines, “Hello” and “How are you today,” but instead inexplicably blurted out something far more intrusive.

“I hear you used to play on the Senior Tour.”

“Yeeesss,” he responded through the teeth that clenched his cigar. He didn’t turn to look, but just kept waving the ball retriever through the green water.

“Did you ever win?”

“Three times,” he drawled. I could tell from his tone that he’d answered that question before.

“Well, do you have any suggestions for players like us who might want to play on the Champions Tour one day?”

“Hit it a little softer.”

The perfect response to a perfectly stupid question.

Maybe Walter Morgan had been asked one too many stupid golf questions in his life. Maybe his hunt for the lost ball was his refuge from nosey attention-seekers. I wasn’t sure, but I did know that leaving him to his privacy was probably the best course of action. That was the first and last time I spoke with Walter Morgan.

After a few months of minding my own business, I was at it again, playing my third shot into the same par five 5th. A 90-yard sand wedge flew just past the flag, caught the face of the slope behind the pin, and spun back towards the hole, almost as if I’d planned it. It was the rare kind of shot that makes you think you might actually be able to play this game, the kind you wish you could take in from the Met Life blimp. As the ball came to rest 5 feet from the cup, the sound of three slow claps echoed off the pond. Walter and I locked eyes for a brief moment from 100 yards away, but before I could fully appreciate what was happening he was already back to waving his wand through the water.

Then it occurred to me. Hit it a little softer. He was serious. Simple words of wisdom from a true legend of the game.

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