As Gil Morgan stepped to the 18th tee, the thunder began a distant hollow grumble. The sky, already angry, suddenly darkened two hours in two minutes. A steady rain began falling. And the swirling wind, a nag all afternoon, gusted briskly. Perfect golf conditions. In hell.

All the good doctor needed was a par. One more par to win the Kemper Open and $180,000. One par for his first victory in seven long years. One par to get back to the highest plateau of golf four years after Frank Jobe performed the rotator cuff surgery that most assumed would end Morgan's quiet, distinguished, underappreciated career.

"Maybe earthquakes or tornadoes would be the only thing you could add to the formula," said Morgan who, at 43, may suddenly be playing better than he ever has.

Would the lightning siren sound and halt play in the middle of the last hole? That was something to worry about. Should he finish the hole in the rain or wait out a delay and, perhaps, stiffen up? Next, Morgan's partner, Clark Burroughs, needed an official's ruling, delaying play. "Oh, go ahead, play first," said Burroughs. Then, as Morgan got ready to do so, Burroughs got his ruling, and Morgan backed off his 4-iron shot.

The more you know about golf, the longer you hang around it and hear great players confess the ways the game erodes their souls, the more you knew Morgan was getting a psychic crunch job. One irritation or distraction after another entered the picture. When Morgan's approach to the stern 444-yard 18th scooted into the back fringe, 75 feet from the hole, the vise firmly had been placed around his temples.

His chip, excellent, but not perfect, slipped and slid perhaps four feet past the hole. The rain continued. So did the wind and a bit of thunder.

This was one of those bad moments in sports when the wrong thing was going to happen. Sometimes the Batphone gets a dead battery. Superman goes to the beach for the weekend. Dick Tracy forgets to wind his watch. It happens.

"I thought everything was just right for me," said Morgan, "to miss that putt."

The pros know. They hear the spooky music. In 18 years on tour, Morgan had never -- never -- had what you could call a character-builder putt for an outright victory in a tournament. Once, he sank a longish tap-in to close out Hubert Green in the World Series of Golf. And once he drained a 40-foot no-brainer in the Memphis Classic to leave a blank expression on Larry Nelson's face. But he'd never had to stand over one tough but imminently makable putt for all the cash.

"That was one anybody could miss," he said.

But Morgan didn't.

Just as his ball began to dive right, heading for the lip out of the cup, it reached its target and disappeared. If Morgan had hit the speed putt a hair less bravely, it would have escaped.

Maybe the spirits of the Kemper Open were showing their gratitude. No one has been as faithful to this tournament as Morgan. Asked how many Kempers he'd played in, Morgan said, "700." Actually, it's 10 of 11 years in Washington. This time, Morgan was the only tour player ranked in the top 15 on the 1990 money list who came. Loyalty rewarded?

Once Morgan lost in a five-way Kemper playoff. Often he contended but faded. Last year he was fifth. On both Congressional and Avenel -- diametrically opposite types of courses -- he has played equally well, seldom leaving the leader board. Morgan even led the PGA Championship at Congressional after two rounds and finished eighth in 1976.

When all the guys on the PGA Tour who weren't in Washington this week hear what happened at Avenel, there'll be some toasts. Few players have been so consistent for so long, yet have so little glory to show for it. Morgan arrived in the middle of a glamour generation of players. But he's outlasted some of his betters.

"I've still got some years to play," said the syrupy swinger who's been compared to Gene Littler. "I have a swing that can hold up over time."

Morgan may have seven career wins, but he's cashed $3,106,049 in checks. That's more than Johnny Miller, Green, David Graham or Nelson, all contemporaries who've won major titles. Morgan, who moved up from 14th to sixth on the '90 money list with $498,682, also figures to finish in the top 30 on the cash list for the ninth time this season. That's more often than more famous fellows such as Fuzzy Zoeller and Craig Stadler.

Perhaps Morgan's injury, the one that almost ended his career but now seems to have reignited it, is symbolic of his whole dutiful career. Pitchers tear their rotator cuffs throwing curveballs. How does a golfer do it?

"Oh, picking a lot of luggage, carrying small children and pounding practice balls," said Morgan, born in Wewoka, Okla., resident of Edmond, Okla., and proud graduate of Oklahoma's East Central State.

In 18 years, Morgan has dragged a lot of his own luggage through airports and given a lot of shoulder rides to his three daughters, now 9, 7 and 5. It's doubtful, however, that a swing as sweet as his could ever hurt anything. Except a few flagsticks.

As he came from behind yesterday, passing handsome, gifted, young Ian Baker-Finch of Australia with birdies at the 13th and 15th holes on his way to a 69 -- 274 total, Morgan said: "I felt like there were a lot of people rooting for me. The last four holes, the bandwagon started to load up."

It should have. That bandwagon was 14 years in the preparation. Morgan has been making friends in Washington for a long time with his smooth swing and his easy way. This time, those who've come to value him were able to let out a long suppressed ovation.

The depth of competition this week may have been woefully weak, but the champion wasn't. He stood as tall, especially on the final hole, as any winner that this tournament has had the good fortune to cheer.