LOS ANGELES -- Gil Morgan loves L.A, and it's easy to understand why.
Morgan, who has won four tournaments in the Los Angeles area in the last 20 years, and Senior Tour earnings leader Hale Irwin are the players to beat in the 19th U.S. Senior Open, which begins Thursday at the Riviera Country Club.
A field of 156 is entered in the 72-hole event, being played in the state of California for the first time, and if Morgan chalks up another victory here, he would accomplish something very special.
The Senior Open is the fourth and final major on the Senior Tour. Morgan won two of the first three -- The Tradition, which finished on April 5, and the Ford Senior Players Championship, which was completed July 12.
He also finished third in the PGA Seniors Championship on April 19 -- behind Irwin and Larry Nelson.
Morgan, a 51-year-old licensed optometrist who has never practiced in that profession due to his success as a golfer, is trying to become the first senior to win three majors in one year since Jack Nicklaus accomplished the feat seven years ago.
The last player on the PGA Tour to win three majors in one year was Ben Hogan, who did so in 1953.
"I always anticipated being fairly successful on the Senior Tour," said Morgan, who became eligible on Sept. 25, 1996 when he turned 50. "I think I've exceeded somewhat my expectations. I've won more tournaments and more money than I anticipated.
"It is amazing, isn't it? I only had seven wins on the regular tour, but I had something like 21 seconds and 23 thirds. I think my ability to score is a lot better today than it ever was. My short game and putting are probably better than ever. They'd better be around here."
Two of Morgan's seven PGA Tour victories came in the Los Angeles Open -- at Riviera in 1978, and at Rancho Park five years later.
His first victory on the Senior Tour came in the Ralphs Senior Classic at the nearby Wilshire Country Club in the fall of 1996, and he repeated that victory last year.
"The area has been very good to me," he said. "I hope that continues."
Morgan has recorded four of his 11 wins on the Senior Tour this year, and has finished in the top 10 in 10 of the 15 tournaments in which he's played.
He has earned $1,325,793, and is averaging 69.80 strokes per round -- second in both categories behind the 53-year-old Irwin, who has also won four tournaments and has earned $1,735,250 while averaging 68.58 strokes per round.
Irwin has played in 13 tournaments this year and never finished lower than a tie for fifth.
Both Morgan nor Irwin believe several players could win this week over the 6,906-yard, par-71 Riviera Country Club course.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Morgan said when asked if he thought it was a two-man race. "I think both of us have played this golf course very well in the past, but I think there are a lot of players who could win."
With that, Morgan mentioned Nelson, Raymond Floyd and Jack Nicklaus as possible contenders.
When Irwin was asked if he thought he was the favorite, he replied, "I don't like to ever consider myself in that vein. I simply like to think that I have been playing very well, as these statistics indicate, but those are numbers."
Morgan, Irwin and Dave Stockton are the only three players in the field who have ever won tournaments at Riviera.