When Washington golfer Al Morton qualified Saturday in Huntsville, Tex., to compete on the Tournament Players Association Tour, it was another step toward fulfilling a dream.
"Lee Elder was the first black golfer to play in the Masters," said Morton, 26, an Anacostia High graduate. "I want to be the first black to win the Masters.
"It took a lot of discipline and determination to qualify for the tour. It's been a struggle. I've done it mostly on my own."
He finished tied for eighth in the TPA Fall Qualifying School at Waterwood National Country Club in Huntsville with a 72-hole total of 290. It was Morton's fourth attempt at qualifying for the circuit, which recently changed its name from the PGA Tour to the TPA Tour.
Morton has come a long way since he was an 8-year-old who came home from Charles Young Elementary School in Northeast and crossed the street to the Langston public course to shag balls and caddy for his idol, Elder.
Because Elder's golf bag was so heavy, Morton used to tug it around on a handcart. Morton said he made up his mind at about 12 that he, too, wanted to be a touring professional.
"I wanted to be my own boss. This is the way you can be your own boss; you can govern, control yourself," he said.
"I used to beat the bushes down and find golf balls around the edge of the water (the Anacostia River) and sell them back to the players. A lot of the balls were no good, and so we hit them away. We got a lot of practice doing that. That's how I first developed a golf swing."
Morton recalls paying $10 for a set of "highly mismatched" clubs. "One time, this man I was caddying for said, 'Can you hit this ball?' I used his club, I think it was a four-iron, and I hit it, and he was impressed. He started introducing me to some guys around the clubhouse, and everybody started taking an interest in me. Some of the guys introduced me to Lee Elder."
"He's a young man who will surpass anything Lee Elder has achieved," Elder said recently. That is a bold prediction, for Elder has won four tour tournaments and almost $1 million since he joined the circuit in 1969 at the relatively advanced age of 33.
"Al has good determination," Elder said. "I've watched him. I know what his potential is. I know he's a good player. He's still a young man, and the purses are getting bigger. He's going to improve. It's tougher today because there are more good players, but he's going to be out there with the competition and pick up more knowledge. He is a good student of the game."
Morton wasn't always a good student. He received Cs and Ds in his junior year at Anacostia, until Elder's wife Rose stressed that to be accepted into college, he had to have academic ability as well as a fluid golf swing.
Morton changed. "I gave up golf for a while and studied day and night. I was in school from 9 to 3 and then I went to night school for English from 6 to 8, and then I went home and got up at 4 in the morning to study more English." He made the honor roll in the first semester of his senior year and was named "most improved student of the year."
Morton was rewarded with a partial scholarship to Indiana University and played on the golf team two years. The Lee Elder Scholarship Fund, which provides funds to athletically inclined but financially disadvantaged inner-city youth, presented Morton with a new set of Wilson Staff irons.
But Morton eventually became disenchanted at Indiana and dropped out. "I was just a number there," he said. "I should have chosen a smaller school."
In 1976, he joined the Army, mainly in hopes of furthering his golf career, and practiced a great deal while stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. He became Interservice golf champion in 1977 and was all-Army champion in 1978 and 1979.
"I really went into the Army to excel in my golf career," Morton said. "The Army also gave me some discipline."
It is Morton's self-discipline and determination that impress Elder. "The one thing that I would say to him is to work hard," Elder said. "Just because he has qualified for the tour doesn't mean he has it made. Qualifying for those tournaments is harder to do than playing in the actual tournaments."
Although Morton has his TPA playing card, he must qualify for each weekly tournament unless he receives sponsor exemptions or unless he earns TPA exemption status by placing high in the tournaments he does qualify for.
Elder, a strong iron player, says Morton is an excellent driver and a good short-iron player, but that his putting may need some work.
Morton gained confidence last year by winning "about $23,000" with four victories in the 25 minitour events he entered. One of his sponsors on the TPA Tour will be Washington newscaster Paul Berry. Berry helped tutor Morton when he was struggling with English in high school. Another of Morton's financial backers will be Washington liquor store owner John Mudd.
"I feel that I can play with the big boys now," Morton said.
Elder hopes to see his pupil-friend out on the tour in the spring. "The one thing that I'm really happy about is it would be a good example for others to see how hard Al has worked and sacrificed in order to get in the position he is in today," Elder said.