'We want to stay on Tour forever' The PGA Tour's one-time return to Wilmington makes for a perfect new chapter in the Port City's off-the-beaten path history with pro golf

Story by Brian Mull

George Johnson stood over a putt on the first green at Cape Fear Country Club in late November 1971. Just three years earlier, the 32-year-old professional golfer had been working as a food vendor in Atlanta. Now he was a 15-foot birdie putt from his first victory on the PGA Tour. A brisk wind chilled the 200 or so spectators huddled to watch the action that Sunday afternoon. Johnson drew back the putter, struck the ball pure. When it dropped in the cup, a college freshman in the gallery said to no one in particular, but loud enough for all to hear,

“That’s it.”

After an improbable 23-year run, the Azalea Open in Wilmington was done.

But what a run it was.

Reagan came before he was President; Palmer came before he was King. Dozens of major champions came to tune up for Augusta, to play a Donald Ross classic that tested their shotmaking and touch. They came to eat seafood, lightly battered and fried, and maybe catch a mess of flounder off Wrightsville Beach. They came for the Southern charm and a kiss from a Queen. They came, first in caravans of sedans down dusty two-lane roads, traveling through the buggy night to play golf for a pittance. Later, some pulled trailers or flew in on planes. They stayed in locals’ homes or shared rooms in roadside motels, played cards at night and drank beer. They thrilled and inspired generations of local golf fans, who touched their shoulders down the fairways, storing chapters of memories with each swing or stroke.

Sports broadcaster Harry Wismer (from left), reporter Hal Boyle, former North Carolina Tarheel and NFL football player Charlie Justice, former NFL player Eddie LeBaron, Pro Football Hall of Fame member Otto Graham Jr., and professional musician Tony Pastor, during the 1952 Azalea Open at Cape Fear Country Club.

Locke, Snead, Demaret, Casper, Player, Weiskopf, Watson, Wadkins, even a young Jack Nicklaus, who made a mistake he’d never repeat. Each battled Cape Fear.

The PGA Tour officially pulled the plug five weeks after Johnson’s putt, on New Year’s Eve when it released the 1972 schedule. For the first time since 1949, the tour wasn’t stopping in Wilmington.

Driven by the leadership of smart, determined men who were eager to feed a golf-hungry community, the Azalea Open defied the odds for two decades. Years before television dollars quadrupled the purses, the tournament survived without funding from a major corporate sponsor. It attracted elite pros despite one of the lowest purses on Tour.

When the Azalea Open ended, it was one of the longest running events on the Tour, in one of the smallest markets. Wilmington’s population was 46,000 in 1970. There were only 115,000 residents in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties. (Today there are 440,000).

Area golf historian Hugh Primrose was the college student who knew the end had come when Johnson drained his winning putt.

What’s the most remarkable fact about the Azalea Open?

“That it lasted as long as it did,” he said.

Chi Chi Rodriguez (top) and Jimmy Demaret (left) were some of the popular pros who helped the early Azalea Open draw large crowds to Cape Fear Country Club.

Just The Beginning

A pint of blended whiskey cost $1.85, and public school teachers had just been granted a 20 percent raise when 46 professionals and 16 amateurs teed off in the Wilmington Open in 1949. (Azalea entered the title the next year.) A six-piece golf set sold for $24.95 at Sears, although Paul O’ Leary used more clubs, for sure, to fashion an opening-round 64, which stood as a tournament record for six years.

O’Leary faded by Sunday and the trophy went to Henry Ransom, a Texan who had formerly worked in the theater. He once shared the stage with a fledgling actor named Clark Gable.

“The people didn’t think much of Gable,” Ransom told the local press. “They thought his ears were too big and they didn’t think he could act. Booed him off the stage.”

Gable turned out fine, as did Ransom, who was a fan favorite in Wilmington because he played with alacrity -- a trait still held in high regard at Cape Fear.

Ransom earned $2,000 for the victory (equivalent to $20,000 today) and later represented the United States in the Ryder Cup. The tournament lost $7,500 the first year but was a central piece of the city’s annual Azalea Festival, which began the previous year.

It grew quickly.

Amateurs played a huge part from the start, and the one who shot the lowest score received a large sterling silver platter. In the era, many talented golfers never turned professional. Those who did weren’t doing it to get rich. Most worked as professionals at a club for part of the year, folding sweaters, teaching lessons and the lot. Some sold insurance or helped with the family business. They gambled on ponies, ballgames and themselves, trying to scratch out enough dough for another shot at the Winter Tour, which concluded each year with the Azalea Open.

Actor and pro golfer Joe “Palooka” Kirkwood was a regular, appearing with his lovely wife, actress Cathy Downs (who became Queen Azalea in 1952). Buses shuttled fans from the corner of Second and Princess to the Country Club. The Parade of Champions golf clinic and exhibition match featured gridiron stars Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice and Otto Graham.

Golfers praised the course and the fans. Lawson Little, who won the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur and British Amateur, enjoyed his trips to the coast.

“All people taking care of the tourney seem to be grand people, very genuine and helping us feel comfortable.” -- Former U.S. Open champion Lawson Little

Larry Beck, a Kinston native, played in the tournament nine times, beginning in 1957. Later that year he won the U.S. Junior, defeating Jack Nicklaus in the third round.

“Golf has been a great thing and to me the Azalea Open has been a big part of it,” said Beck, who tied for second in the 1963 event and lives in Advance. “To me it was an inspiration. It was something I delighted in. Always see all the guys and gals and people that I knew. They’d come down, my gallery - about 10 of ‘em - come down and want to walk around and watch. I knew eventually it would expire.”

A Peak, And A Valley

Because it was golf, a fan never knew what he might see at the Azalea Open. In the opening round in 1952, young Milon Marusic from upstate New York five-putted on the short par-3 10th, then birdied seven of the last eight holes.

“What do you with a putter like that?” Marusic wondered. “Cuss it or kiss it?”

Jimmy Clark took the title, his first on Tour, starting a trend that continued until the end of the Azalea Open. In all, there were 10 first-time winners.

Clark’s wife cried -- and perhaps his caddie did too, after receiving $39 for the week. But happiness prevailed throughout the Wilmington Athletic Association, the group formed in 1948 to run the tournament. WAA officers Gib Arthur and Garland Palmer reported attendance of 10,000 for the week that year. Tickets sold for $2 per day or $6 for a weekly pass and could be purchased at O’Crowley’s Cleaners or Payne’s Men’s Store.

George Fazio, whose nephew Tom would design Eagle Point Golf Club 50 years later, was an accomplished touring pro and regular participant at the Azalea. “People are so nice here," George said. "That’s why so many of the fellows like to play this tournament.”

Arthur passed away in the fall of 1955 and two men led the Azalea Open for the next 15 years. J.A. “Bunny” Hines and Hamilton Hicks operated in contrasting styles but shared a goal. They fought to keep Wilmington as a permanent stop on the PGA Tour -- even in those situations when the future looked dim.

In 1953, the Azalea preceded the Masters but was not held during the Festival for the first time. Instead, a harness race at Legion Stadium became the festival’s primary sporting attraction.

Regardless, the flowers were in bloom and the tournament thrived as 17 of the top 25 money winners on the Winter Tour appeared, including Lloyd Mangrum who led the circuit with $6,730.

“With the exception of a few who insist on getting their practice at the bar or in an easy chair just off the putting green,” Eldridge Thompson wrote, “the finest pro golfers in the nation were busy yesterday at the Cape Fear Country Club whipping the kinks out of their game.”

The first hints of bleak moments soon followed.

The Azalea Open started its run the week before the Masters, but eventually moved to the week after pro golf's first major. The change -- directly in competition with the Tournament of Champions -- eventually affected the quality of the field here in Wilmington.

The Money Always Talks

The Azalea’s perpetual financial dilemma was real. In 1953, the Tour started to ask all events to raise their purse to $15,000. Greensboro and the Azalea were the only $10,000 tournaments remaining. The summer schedule was released during the Azalea, and purses for those events ranged from $15,000 to $45,000.

The Azalea couldn't increase its purse just yet, but the star power remained.

Jerry Barber won the first of three Azalea Open titles in 1953, emerging from the locker room in a white sportcoat to collect the $2,000 check.

The diminutive Barber enjoyed the tournament’s best record, but nobody was more popular than the two men paired together during the first two rounds in 1954: a newlywed 118-pound pro from Massachusetts and an amateur from Pennsylvania fresh off a stint in the Coast Guard.

Bob Toski (above left) won the tournament that year, defeating what Ray O’Brien of the PGA Tour said was “without a doubt, the finest field of our present tour.” Local teenagers followed his every move. His wife Lynn laughed when she overheard spectators calling him a jockey. Toski, 90, played in the Azalea Open eight times in the '50s and also set the course record with a 63 in 1955.

“I loved the golf course, number one,” Toski said recently. “And the people. There’s a Southern hospitality up there that you don’t have elsewhere. I was like a Pied Piper to the kids. We were all just a bunch of gypsies trying to live first class.”

Arnold Palmer joined their ranks fulltime in November, traveling the tour with wife Winnie as they pulled a trailer behind. But he gave fans a glimpse of the future, opening with a 7-under-par 65 in ‘54 to seize the lead.

After the round, "fans swamped him," the StarNews reported.

He tied for seventh, shattering the amateur scoring record.

Billy Maxwell set the tournament scoring record in 1955 with a 270, and long-hitting Mike Souchak from Duke drove the green on 14 and sank a 50-footer for eagle to take the ‘56 title.

“In a surge reminiscent of the days when the teenagers used to tear clothes off singers like Frank Sinatra, Wilmington’s youth closed in on Souchak in a wild demonstration of either his popularity or their complete disregard of order & ropes,” StarNews columnist Frank Barndollar wrote.

Palmer returned in 1957. Pre-tournament coverage listed him as a contender. He’d won four times on the PGA Tour in less than two years, and would win his first major the following year at Augusta.

Prior to the tournament, Cape Fear pro Terry Malan discovered a graveyard left of 17 green in dense brush and moved the 18th tee. The weekend before the tournament, Art Wall Jr. and his hosts, Hugh Primrose’s parents, watched North Carolina defeat Kansas in triple overtime to win the school’s first NCAA championship in basketball. Billy Casper arrived with his wife, Shirley, daughter Linda and son Billy (five months). Casper won 51 PGA Tour events and had 11 children.

The Tour also had implemented a new TTT Points Plan, fining players for displays of temper. It didn’t stop Tommy Bolt. He threw his putter at the 4th and smashed a tee marker at the 10th. Bolt would’ve been wise to follow the strategy of Bud Holscher, used weeks earlier after a rotten putting day in Pensacola. He left the golf course, drove 150 miles, pulled over, smashed his putter to pieces, got back in the car and drove away.

Palmer had no reason for such outbursts. He opened with a 67 and survived brutal conditions in the final round for a one-shot victory over Dow Finsterwald. He admitted being nervous on the 72nd green as he made par to win and threw his cap, then golf ball into the air.

Arnold Palmer's three-year run from 1956-58 at the Azalea Open led into winning seven majors from 1958 to 1964.

“I was so conscious of the fact I have so many friends here and it’s not always easiest with your friends around” said Palmer, who returned for one final Azalea in 1958, losing to Howie Johnson by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff in which he called a penalty on himself when his ball moved on the 14th green.

After Palmer’s victory, Graham Barefoot and Robert M. Williams Jr. and their dates accompanied Arnold and Winnie to the Marina restaurant, where the winner paid the tab, according to Cashman’s Cape Fear CC history.

The Azalea had a popular champion and a profitable week. Yet any good feelings faded quickly as the Tour finally made good on its $15,000 minimum, meaning a hike for the next year.

The tournament wanted to keep its dates during the Azalea Festival and prior to the Masters. The Tour was contemplating a $20,000 tournament in Miami. After months of back-and-forth, the two sides agreed in mid-December on a date and a $15,000 purse.

“We want to stay on the Tour forever.” -- Former Azalea Open co-organizer Hamilton Hicks.

One Last Surge

There was another black cloud looming. In 1955, the Atlantic Coast Line railroad had announced it would leave Wilmington in five years. The ACL employed 1,650 people in a town of 42,000 and had a payroll of $6.5 million.

The ACL indeed headed south in the summer of 1960 and the Azalea faded again. Following years of 150- or 160-man fields, the 1961 tournament had only 70 pros, a tiny purse ($1,200 for the winner) and Jerry Barber’s win was considered unofficial.

With the PGA Tour considering other venues, Bunny Hines flew to Milwaukee to meet with the International Golf Sponsors Association. Hines hammered out a deal with that group of tournament promoters, and the Azalea returned in 1962 as an official event with a $20,000 purse.

Gary Player, the 1961 Masters and money list champion, committed early and a strong field followed. A new sponsorship program funded the tournament. More than 200 residents and businesses donated $100 apiece.

Jerry Barber won three Azalea Open titles.

Barber won again the following year. Ground chuck cost 43 cents a pound and a 16-year-old amateur from Port St. Lucie, Fla., made the cut. Years later the best pros in the world called Claude Harmon Jr. for help with their swing and everyone called him Butch.

The Azalea purse was growing, but not fast enough. Dick Hart defeated Phil Rodgers in an eight-hole playoff ("had all the spine-tingling excitement of wrestling a gorilla barehanded," one scribe opined) in 1965 to earn $3,850, which was the largest check in tournament history at that point but the smallest winner’s cut on Tour that year.

Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open the next week and earned $11,000.

All Downhill From Here

The following year marked the beginning of the end. After losing its slot directly ahead of the Masters a few years earlier, the tournament was played the week after golf’s first major beginning in 1966.

The field suffered because the Azalea was held opposite the Tournament of Champions. Bert Yancey didn’t seem to mind when he won in 1966 and received a long kiss from TV star Ulla Stromsedt, a blonde beauty who changed her plans and stayed in town an extra day.

The next year Randy Glover claimed his first Tour victory. The Sanford native and South Carolina resident dealt with back trouble throughout his career but fought through that week to defeat good friend Joe Campbell in a playoff.

He airmailed the green on the short par-3 10th, but a spectator batted it down according to those in the gallery. Glover made a fine up-and-down and then birdied the 11th to win $5,000. He used the money to pay off a car he had just bought.

“I had a lot of good friends up in Wilmington,” said Glover, who is retired and lives in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. “The Trask family and Dave Fillipelli and all of ‘em. I always fished when I was up there. My traveling partner was Claude King. He and his brother had that seafood restaurant right there on the causeway at Wrightsville Beach (Faircloth’s). We ate there a bunch.”

Roberto de Vicenzo came to Wilmington in 1968, the week after an incorrect scorecard cost him the Masters. The friendly Argentine almost repeated his mistake at Cape Fear, the StarNews reported, avoiding disqualification only when an official reminded him to sign his scorecard before he left the scoring area.

Hines and the WAA pumped the purse to a record $60,000 in 1970 as more change came to the Azalea, with dates in early October. But attendance was sparse. Fans listened to college football games on transistor radios while following the golfers.

Bobby Mitchell, a young pro from Danville, Va., set the 54-hole record at 198 and appeared to have the tournament in hand after an eagle on the par-5 15th. But he three-putted the final three greens in regulation, handing Cesar Sanudo his first PGA Tour win and the $12,000 check.

“It was the type of golf course I grew up on, a shotmaker’s course,” Mitchell said 47 years later. “I was really comfortable playing there. The greens were small. When I three-putted those first two greens, I tried to forget but it was hard. I felt like digging a hole and climbing in it after that round.”

In one way, optimism surrounded the 1971 Azalea Open. Perhaps the best rookie class ever was joining the Tour. The U.S. Amateur champion Lanny Wadkins, who the AP described as brash and cocky after his opening 65, and Stanford graduate Tom Watson, a long, albeit wild, prospect with a sharp short game. Also, at the time only the top 60 money winners from the previous year were exempt on Tour. The rest had to qualify each Monday unless they made the cut the week before.

But the purse was small ($35,000) and so were the crowds. Watson and Wadkins started the final round on the leaderboard but quickly dropped off. Jim Colbert had control until a triple-bogey on 7.

That left George Johnson and Ralph Johnston tied at the end of regulation. Johnson made the putt to defeat his good friend and became the fourth African-American to win on the PGA Tour. He’d learned the game as a caddie at age 15, practicing in a parking lot next to the segregated club where he worked in Columbus, Ga., using clubs given to him by members.

The greatest underdog tournament success story in PGA Tour history was going out with a champion who understood plenty about fighting against the odds.

“I’ll probably break down and cry when I leave here,” Johnson said.

The Azalea Open's final mention in Golf World magazine.

Bunny Hines stepped down as president of the WAA a few days later. He’d been on a plane that was hijacked to Cuba. He’d fought the Tour face to face. He’d given his time and spirit to the tournament and he was spent.

The PGA Tour was evolving. Most tournaments had a full-time director working on behalf of the event year round. Hines was a building contractor. He and the other members of the WAA didn’t have the time or manpower to keep driving the tournament forward. The GGO, which was set to offer a $200,000 purse, had the backing of the Greensboro Jaycees and its 400 members. The WAA leadership counted about 20.

The PGA Tour offered the Azalea Open the same late November dates in 1972. The tournament had sold only $2,200 in tickets Friday through Sunday in 1971.

“If WAA could get someone to take over as director and also a commercial sponsor, it could survive,” Hines told StarNews sports editor Jerry Hooks, “but without those it had no chance.”

The news appeared on Dec. 31, 1971, in papers around the nation from Asheville to Traverse City, Mich., to Redlands, Calif. Each ran the same short, sad, blurb from the UPI wire: "Due to lack of public support, the Azalea Open has not been scheduled …"

They're Back, Just For A Minute

Many familiar names returned to Wilmington five years later.

David Loughlin organized a 36-hole American Cancer Society Celebrity Golf Tournament at Echo Farms. The event was in April, sandwiched between the two Carolinas PGA Tour stops, Hilton Head and Greensboro, that helped push the Azalea Open off the schedule.

Dick Lotz, a veteran of four Azalea Opens, shot 4-under 140 to beat the lefty Bob Charles. Lotz won $10,000, the second-largest check ever awarded to a touring professional in Wilmington.

For many local golf fans, the weekend was a stroll down memory lane. Sam Snead was there, putting croquet style; Tommy Bolt, Julius Boros, Bobby Mitchell, Steve Reid, Dick Hart, Harvie Ward, John Schlee, Larry Beck, Claude King, all the familiar names from Azalea Opens past came to town one more time.

Joe DiMaggio and tennis star Pancho Gonzales headed the celebrity field and there was a serious amateur competition.

Tournament promoters hoped to bump the purse to $100,000 the following year. There were rumors the Hilton Head PGA Tour stop might fold and Hooks was optimistic about about a return.

“But there seems to be considerably more interest in this tournament, perhaps because of its pro-am connection,” Hooks wrote. “Or possibly because the sports fans missed the old Azalea and wanted to retain Wilmington’s chances for a spot on the tour.”

Forty years later, those wishes have come true.

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