On a balmy day in April, Bobby Stroble leaned against the porch railing of the clubhouse at Flint River Municipal Golf Course in Albany, Ga., flashed a big, sweet smile and watched geese waddle across a nearby green. He is safe now, but Vietnam is never far away.
A few hundred miles north, Walter Morgan, 69, sat in his luxurious den, surrounded by the spoils of tournament golf. Glittering crystal trophies line the shelves of display cases and dozens of contestant badges from the PGA Tour and Champions Tour lie in careful rows in a glass-topped table. Memories of Vietnam haunt Morgan too, creeping in during his days and well into his nights.
Stroble and Morgan are strong, brave men who overcame what it meant to be black in America in the days before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Neither man went to a golf academy or belonged to a country club. Neither won a full ride to a prestigious college or played amateur golf.
Stroble and Morgan took separate, tough roads to winning golf tournaments, but some things they share. Like Vietnam.
Most of us know a Vietnam veteran: He is our uncle, our cousin, our father, our friend. Perhaps he’s the man standing on the street corner, the guy we give a few bucks to, the guy who has nowhere else to go.
Stroble and Morgan fought in Vietnam and came back with new purpose. Their military careers helped them, they say.
Bobby Stroble grew up in Albany. One of eight children, he worked short stints as a laborer and caddied at American Legion Golf Course and Radium Springs as a teenager. When Bobby was 16, his uncle, J.B. Wingfield, put a club in his hands for the first time.
Wingfield took him to Florida for the winter and they caddied at Boca Grande, an exclusive club with members from the highest strata of American society. At the end of their work day, J.B. and Bobby played golf until dark. In two months, Bobby went from shooting in the 90s to scores of near par.
Haddock, Ga., is a small town near Macon and when Walter Morgan grew up there, his passion was baseball. Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Bob Gibson were his heroes. After high school, Morgan was offered a grant to play baseball at Albany State. Instead, he joined the Army in 1960 and while in training played baseball at Fort Jackson, S.C., Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Ord, Calif. His powerful forearms and broad shoulders attest to his power at the plate.
In 1964, he signed up for a second tour of military duty. He was a drill sergeant, training other kids. Twice he went to Vietnam. Morgan believed in his commitment. He had signed on the dotted line. The military would be his career for 20 years.
Stroble was drafted in 1965 and was shipped to Vietnam with the 9th Army Infantry Division. It wasn’t all bad.
“I needed a little direction in life, so my getting drafted was a good thing,” Stroble said. “In Vietnam, I was scared. Then, once you had that adjustment, you just went with the flow.”
In a faraway jungle, his sergeant, Sid Ragland, of Columbus, Ga., turned to Stroble and said, “I wish I had a golf club.”
“Me too, Sarge,” said Stroble.
It was the only time the game was mentioned during his tour of Vietnam. “Golf just wasn’t in the bin,” Stroble said.
Late one night, Stroble and his comrades were asleep in their compound in Sa Dec. They were surrounded by water. Just one way in. Just one way out.
Gunfire cracked in the dark.
“You grab your pants and your rifle and your boots and you head to your position,” Stroble said.
He jumped into a foxhole and as the enemy advanced, an explosion flashed when a buddy ran through a field and stepped on a land mine. Several South Vietnamese soldiers went down as gunfire rattled the camp.
“That was probably the bloodiest time,” Stroble said. “Most of the time they hit us with mortar but they tried to overrun us this time. Pretty much as a whole, we were lucky.”
Through some foul-up, Stroble never received the American combat badge, although he has several from the South Vietnamese.
“You’re not looking at what medals you got,” he said.
After coming home, Stroble would pay a bitter price.
Walter Morgan doesn’t talk about the war. “I was there long enough to get shot at. I saw more than my share of combat,” is all he’ll say.
He too paid a price.
Morgan started playing golf between his Vietnam tours. Stationed in Hawaii, he hit golf balls and got hooked. In the late 1960s the Army dropped its baseball program and Morgan turned to golf. He bought a set of Sam Snead Blue Ridge clubs at a PX and taught himself to play. At the end of 1966, Stroble came home and spent six months at Fort Hood, Texas. That’s where he met Orville Moody, who offered friendship and a whole new world of hard-fought competitive golf.
In the South in the early 1960s, conditions were such that Stroble summarized them with a few words. “Public courses weren’t public to blacks,” he said. “We finally got to play the public courses, probably in 1968…
“Once you went out there and they found it was constitutional to play, they had to let us play…I think after they said we could play, it was three months before they let us out there.”
Meanwhile, Stroble and his friends improvised. They built a primitive golf course in a field. “Rough and tumble,” they called their game in the field. The shots Bobby learned there became part of his repertoire as a pro.
Walter Morgan won the All-Army and the All-Service golf championships back-to-back in 1975 and ’76. He retired from the military and joined the Champions Tour, winning three times between 1995 and 2006. Vietnam, if anything, helped him to compete. “Guys said, ‘You don't seem to be nervous.’ I said, ‘Nervous for what? Nobody's shooting at me, so why should I be nervous?’”
Golf is, after all, a game.
But Morgan remembers the rough times, such as when he drove a brand-new courtesy car provided to contestants, yet a parking official, flush with power, insisted he belonged in the caddies’ parking lot. There were a lot of times like that. Those “Contestant” badges in Morgan’s office mean a lot today.
Bobby Stroble supported his family by playing for the small purses at tournaments conducted by the United Golf Association, the UGA, which was organized to promote golf for African-Americans. He played in other small tournaments, winning nearly 100 events, and augmented his income by gambling at public courses across America. Stroble went on to win his PGA Tour card on five occasions. He once got to qualifying school by hitchhiking with his golf bag strapped on his back. Old friends, like Sgt. Ragland and pioneer African-American club professional Harold Dunovant,helped him with small infusions of cash, meals here, a motel room there. Stroble later dominated the Senior Series tour as its leading money winner, capturing $90,000 in 1994 when that was a nice income. At Quail Springs Golf Course in Knoxville, Tenn., Stroble fired an incredible 25-33–58 on a par-72 layout. He doesn’t mind talking about that one. He also owned soul-food restaurants in Atlanta and Macon.
Morgan and Stroble came up the rough road from different directions, the caddie ranks and the military. Beating balls, struggling, never giving up, they claimed their slice of the American pie.
They share a love for golf, fondness for the military, pride in their service in Vietnam and success on the tournament trail.
There’s something else they share: Battle fatigue. Now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks developed after combat. Nearly four decades after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam, estimates of lifetime PTSD cases range from nearly 19 percent to more than 30 percent of Americans who served in Vietnam.
Morgan and Stroble played top-level golf, but PTSD made it harder. While it still afflicts them today, they have gone on with their lives.
Stroble plays golf about once a month now. In the winter he plays in a few small tournaments in Florida. Occasionally he goes to senior citizen centers in Atlanta or Macon to play cards. Sometimes he telephones old friends from his days of glory on the golf trail. Because of PTSD, he’s nervous, edgy and can’t sleep without a light on in his room.
“I look at Vietnam, it’s something I did,” Stroble says. “I would do it tomorrow.”
Today, Walter Morgan and Geraldine Morgan, his wife, have an elegant house on a lake in North Carolina. Geraldine supervises the gardens, the brightly blooming rhododendrons and carefully trimmed mulch paths, with their cheerful spaniel “Essie” at her heels. They have friends. They attend church. Life is good.
The Morgans drove out to a public golf course in Charlotte. Hundreds of people milled around Charlie Sifford, who was being honored on that day as the course was renamed the Dr. Charlie Sifford Golf Course. Morgan and Sifford traveled together on the Champions Tour and are old friends.
There are many shadings to their stories: Morgan and Stroble – African-American golf professionals who served proudly in Vietnam – Stroble up from the caddie ranks, Morgan through the military. Both deal with a disorder brought on by combat. Both are the beneficiaries of a legacy for black golfers earned by Sifford and Bill Spiller, Ted Rhodes, Joe Louis, Pete Brown, Lee Elder, Charlie Owens, Harold Dunovant, Calvin Peete and many, many others.
Morgan parks his car and strides briskly toward Sifford, shoulders back, chest out, his face beaming and a big cigar clamped between his teeth. During the ceremonies, people in the crowd call out, “Hit one, Walter! Hit one!” and Morgan complies by hitting a tee shot.
Straining his powerful shoulders into a smooth backswing, Morgan fires the clubhead and the ball leaps from the tee with a crack like a rifle shot. The audience laughs knowingly and applauds.
Vietnam is far away and long ago. Golf, it seems, has made it all right.
“Just look at him,” Geraldine Morgan chuckles. “When Walter gets to a golf course, it’s like the rest of us aren’t here.”