Morgan Riley recently, if slightly reluctantly, posed for a photo next to the U.S. Open championship trophy.
Asked if he would like to one day have the trophy in his hands, cradling it as the U.S. Open winner, Morgan smiled and shyly answered, “Yeah.”
Morgan is only 7, with a lifetime of golf ahead of him. He also has a natural golf swing, a genuine affection for the game and an enthusiasm that’s infectious.
Morgan, of Raleigh, is one of three North Carolina golfers featured in “The U.S. Open: Drive to Pinehurst,” an online video series produced by the U.S. Golf Association. The U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open will be played in back-to-back weeks at Pinehurst No. 2 next month, and the USGA selected Morgan to be one of the subjects of the series.
Some threesome, too. Larry Boswell of Jamestown is 70 and a member of the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame. Savannah Thompson of Pinehurst is 18 and headed to UNC-Pembroke next year on a golf scholarship.
The USGA, in conjunction with Lexus, partnered to sponsor the series. Momentum Worldwide, a marketing and advertising agency, created the concept and sought golfers of various ages and different North Carolina communities who had ties to the Pinehurst area.
Morgan has competed in U.S. Kids Golf tournaments, finishing 29th in the 2013 World Championship in Pinehurst, while also participating in programs sponsored by The First Tee of the Triangle.
Morgan got his start in golf, his mother said, sitting in greenside bunkers watching his old brother, Quinn, blast shots out of the sand.
“He got sand in his diapers,” Denise Riley said, laughing.
Morgan learned to walk, she said, using plastic golf clubs to help him move around. Soon, he would sit on a practice range and patiently observe as Quinn, now 14 and a 5-handicapper, hit balls.
“He’s a monkey-see, monkey-do kind of learner,” Denise Riley said. “I always have to make sure he’s watching someone who’s a good player, like his brother, or he’ll learn bad habits quickly.”
Morgan doesn’t appear to have too many flaws in his swing. Good balance, good tempo. And his concentration is pretty keen, even when there are distractions – like “drones” buzzing over his head.
Morgan recently took part in a video session for “Drive to Pinehurst” at Hillandale Golf Course in Durham. A film crew had him surrounded but also used a remote-controlled, airborne camera for another angle as Morgan hit shots.
“I was kind of scared it would come down and land on me,” Morgan said. “It was OK, but at first I kind of flinched. I got used to it, but it was like a bee trying to chase me.”
Ah, the challenges of stardom.
When the camera crew was finished, Morgan had time to talk about golf. And other sports.
“I play soccer, lacrosse, golf, basketball,” he said. “I kind of like soccer. Golf’s pretty fun.”
His low score in golf is a 35 on nine holes at Hillandale. He also had a 36 at Pinehurst No. 8 in a U.S. Kids tournament.
“Morgan played U.S. Kids events on the Raleigh tour and Pinehurst tour and has won his age division for both tours,” Denise Riley said. “He played in the U.S. championship last year. His goal was to finish in the top 50. This year it’s the top 15. He always sets goals, which he learned at The First Tee.”
Morgan will be at the U.S. Open with his mother and brother – Denise will drive a shuttle and Quinn will be on the course as a standard-bearer. Morgan said he hoped to get out on the course to follow Tigers Woods, but Woods’ back surgery in March likely will force him to miss the Open.
Morgan does have a fallback plan: follow Rory McIlroy. “He’s my next favorite,” he said.
But Morgan also has another golf favorite, and a bit of a surprise. Last year he met Billy Casper, the U.S. Open champion in 1959 and 1966, when Casper was in Raleigh.
“He was a really good golfer, and I really like him,” Morgan said of the World Golf Hall of Fame member. “We looked him up and he won a lot of stuff.”
The U.S. Open trophy was on display at Hillandale during the filming for “Drive to Pinehurst,” scheduled to be available online at usopen.com on Thursday. Denise Riley finally was able to coax Morgan close enough to it for a few quick photos.
Morgan leaned over, checking out the names of past champions on the silver trophy. There’s Raleigh native Webb Simpson, and Woods and McIlroy.
But Morgan kept looking, then smiled.
“Billy Casper,” he said, rubbing his finger over the name.