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,
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.
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.
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.”
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.