- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Robert Morgan, one of the principal figures in putting Hattiesburg on the golf map, died Friday in the Hub City. He was 86.

A visitation and service were held Wednesday at Venture Church.

Morgan, who graduated from Hattiesburg High in 1949 and the University of Southern Mississippi in 1953, helped found the Magnolia State Classic in 1968. He spent the next 38 years as the tournament director for Mississippi’s only PGA Tour event, which went through several name changes including the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, the Southern Farm Bureau Classic and the Viking Classic, before becoming the Sanderson Farms Championship, which is played each year in Jackson.

Ron Hickman, Timberton Golf Club’s general manager, met Morgan while in college. He served as a caddy for the Magnolia State Classic - initially played opposite The Colonial Invitational and later The Masters annually at Hattiesburg Country Club - before eventually becoming the tournament’s caddy master.

“He was a great administrator,” Hickman said of Morgan, a 2009 Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame inductee. “He was outstanding. He could handle anything that came his way, good or bad, and do it all with a twinkle in his eye. He had a talent most people didn’t.”

The Magnolia State Classic began as the brainchild of former Southern Miss golf coach Sam Hall and local businessman, the late John Bethea. The pair came up with the idea of hosting a PGA Tour satellite tournament in Hattiesburg. After presenting their plan to Morgan, the then-president of Hattiesburg Country Club, he put on the first Magnolia State Classic that featured a purse of $20,000. The Sanderson Farms Classic features a $4.3 million purse today.

“He took it from scratch and got it going,” said Hall, who first met Morgan in grade school. “And through all the years he was involved with it, he did a great, great job.”

Jerry Weeks served as Hattiesburg Country Club’s director of golf operations for 25 years (beginning in 1981) prior to becoming Southern Miss’ men’s golf coach in 2006. He is also a five-time Magnolia State Classic participant.

“It was very, very low-key,” he said. “We even had some fishing tournaments tied to it. But it was just such a fun, fun week. And I’ve heard some great stories of when they first started it and people like Clint Eastwood, Dean Martin and Bobby Goldsboro would come to Hattiesburg to play in the pro-am (portion of the event).

“During tournament week, (Morgan) was always around with a smile on his face. All the players would come up and thank him for the invitation. It was just how he treated all the players and how respectful they were of him. They could’ve taken the week off, but they wanted to come and support the tournament.”

Hickman remembers the likes of Payne Stewart (1989 PGA Championship winner), Fred Couples (1992 Masters champion) and Nick Faldo (a three-time The Open champion and three-time Masters winner) taking part in various Magnolia State Classics.

“If you didn’t get in The Masters (that year), you knew you wanted to come to Hattiesburg to play,” he said. “You felt you were at a mini-Masters. And it was mostly because of Robert Morgan. He made that tournament what it is.

“He will be missed.”

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