Robert Morgan, ‘Mr. Magnolia Classic,’ dies at 86

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Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan, the soft-spoken Hattiesburg gentleman who helped create and then nurtured Mississippi’s only PGA Tour tournament for 38 years, died Friday in his hometown. He was 86.

Morgan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was the PGA Tour’s longest-serving tournament director. After being one of the Magnolia State Classic’s founders in 1968, Morgan served as the event’s executive director through hurricanes and floods and a move from the Hattiesburg Country Club to the Jackson area. The Sanderson Farms Championship is now played at the Country Club of Jackson.

In 2005, Sports Illustrated referred to the Mississippi’s PGA event – then the Southern Farm Bureau Classic – as “the little tournament that could.”

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

It “could” for so long because of Robert Ira Morgan. That same Sports Illustrated article described Morgan as “the very portrait of a Southern gentleman” and “longtime executive director of the Classic, (who) has white hair, a sincere smile, a slow gait and a smooth, easy voice.”

Morgan was inducted into the Mississippi Spots Hall of Fame in 2009.

A grocery wholesaler by trade and president of the Hattiesburg Country Club, Morgan helped organize what began as a $20,000 PGA “satellite” tournament played opposite the Colonial Invitational.

From such humble beginnings, the tournament has evolved into a full-fledged PGA Tour event that offers a purse of $4.3 million and has raised more than $11 million for Mississippi charities.

“Mr. Morgan was a true entrepreneur, and our tournament exists because of him,” said Joe Sanderson, CEO of Sanderson Farms, the tournament’s sponsor. “It was his idea and he made it happen and then he managed it for all those years. We don’t want anyone to ever forget that history.”

Robert Morgan and his wife, Marilyn, who died last month.

Under Morgan, the tournament faced several crises, mostly caused by weather and the tournament’s small market status. One came in 1975 when the tournament was played opposite The Masters in April and the purse was measured in thousands and not millions. The rain-plagued tournament had ended on Easter Sunday and Morgan unexpectedly visited the sports department of The Hattiesburg American on Monday morning.

“Guys, I need help,” Morgan told those of us in the office. “Our tournament is in trouble. If the community doesn’t get behind us, we’re history.”

Morgan said he believed the community had begun to take the tournament for granted and it was in grave danger of dying.

We wrote the story just that way. The Hattiesburg community rallied around it. The tournament was saved.

Several years later, Morgan moved the tournament to Annandale in Madison and many in the Hattiesburg area resented him for it. But Morgan, as he had always done, was simply doing what it took for the tournament to survive.

Jackson area golf pro Randy Watkins uniquely played in the tournament and then succeeded Morgan as its second exeutive director in 2006.

Robert Morgan (right) with Randy Watkins in 2006.

“Mr. Morgan was a golf legend, but more so, a life legend,” Watkins said. “He was a tireless worker, remarkably creative and doggedly persistent. He never took his eye off the ball. Where he was concerned, it was charity first, Mississippi second and golf third. He was a hero and a mentor for me and many others. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten.”

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Services will be held Wednesday, May 17 at 11 a.m. at Venture Church in Hattiesburg. Visitation will be from 9-11 a.m. prior to the service.

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Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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