John Morgan lost not once, but twice at the John Deere Classic. First, the Englishman lost to Australian Mark Hensby in a playoff, then he lost what he thought was a sure trip to the British Open.
The second may have hurt the worst.
Hensby parred the second playoff hole July 11 to earn his first PGA Tour victory and a spot in this week’s British Open as the lowest finisher not already exempt. Because he has had little experience playing links courses and said he would not have had time to properly prepare for the Open, Hensby declined the bid, instead thinking he could give it to Morgan. In fact, he told Morgan the bid was his before the playoff began.
“It was really a no-brainer. I’ve never played a course like that,” Hensby said. “I feel pretty good inside that I gave it to John.”
So did Morgan, as his disappointment at losing the playoff was tempered by the thought of competing at the Open.
“I feel like a winner, I really do,” Morgan said after the playoff.
He did, that is, until Tour officials – who first had announced that the British Open spot would go to Morgan – told him long after the round had ended that the exemption could not be passed on to the next-highest finisher.
“It would have been lovely,” Morgan said later. “It’s just one of those things. You’ve got to follow the rules. They apologized to me. It’s a shame.
“What can I do? It’s out of my hands.”
The drama following the playoff somewhat overshadowed Hensby’s victory. The 33-year-old Aussie, coming off a third-place finish at the Cialis Western Open, began the day four shots behind Jose Coceres, but opened with five birdies in his first eight holes to take the lead on his way to a final-round 66.
Coceres, who led after the first three rounds, parred the first seven holes before a double bogey on the eighth made him play catch-up the rest of the way. He finished one shot back at 15 under par after an even-par 71.
Morgan (65) finished strong, notching four birdies in his final five holes as he gathered momentum, emotion and the support of the gallery down the stretch.
After a third consecutive birdie, on No. 16, Morgan drained a 14-footer, pumped his fists several times and yelled “Come on!” to the delight of the crowd. Then, needing a birdie on the 18th to pull even with Hensby at 16 under par, Morgan rolled in a 30-footer that drew a huge roar from the crowd.
Knowing he now had a shot at playing in his country’s national championship, Morgan pulled the ball from the hole and kissed it, then traded high-fives with the crowd as he ran up a hill to await Hensby’s finish.
“I was loving it,” Morgan said. “I was just getting more and more emotional as it was going on, and come 18, it just polished me off. It just obliterated me right there.”
Hensby, meanwhile, almost lost it several times on the last two holes. On the par-5 17th, both his drive and his second shot went into the trees on the left, then bounced back into the fairway, only 140 yards from the green. He went on to make par from there, and at that point, had to feel like fate was on his side.
“I hit a terrible tee shot there,” Hensby said. “The second shot, I figured there was no way I could hit it that high, but it kept sailing. You need some luck.”
Hensby then saved par from a greenside bunker on No. 18 to force the playoff with Morgan.
After the playoff was interrupted by rain for approximately an hour on the first playoff hole, the Australian won with a par on the second playoff hole, the par-3 16th. Morgan pulled his tee shot into a hazard left of the green. Hitting from a difficult stance, he chipped across the green and into a bunker. He nearly made the sand shot, his ball missing the cup by an inch before running past and giving Hensby the victory.
Both players come from humble backgrounds.
Morgan, 26, who overcame dyslexia and epilepsy before turning pro, qualified for the PGA Tour at 2002 Q-School, but finished 141st on the 2003 money list to lose his card. Still, he gave approximately half of his $422,917 in ’03 earnings to his father, a longtime dock worker in England, so he could retire. Splitting time between the PGA Tour and Nationwide circuits this season, Morgan had tasted little success, making only $22,280 in 11 combined events prior to his $410,400 runner-up check at the John Deere.
Hensby also knows about hard times. As a young pro in 1994, he lived for several winter weeks out of his car in a parking lot at Cog Hill Golf Club near Chicago. He will never have to do that again. The $684,000 he earned for his John Deere victory moved him to No. 13 on the Tour money list with $1,992,391.
“It’s taken a long time,” said Hensby, who spent six years on the Nationwide Tour. “I grew up from a background with not a lot of money and not much help. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”