Though probably only ardent and older golf fans are likely to know or remember, the PGA Tour has been in Wilmington before, and it wasn’t just in passing.
For 23 consecutive years from 1949 to 1971 the Azalea Open was played on the Donald Ross-designed Cape Fear Country Club.
The tournament was so named because it began as the central piece of the city of Wilmington’s annual Azalea Festival.
It survived without a major corporate sponsor and managed to attract elite pros despite having one of the lowest purses on tour throughout its always-tenuous existence.
A group called the Wilmington Athletic Association, essentially consisting of Cape Fear Country Club members, put up much of the money for the purse. They all but passed a hat around to raise the funds.
In the latter years of the tournament a sponsorship program was created, and about 200 people put up $100 each to help account for the purse and get their names in the program. The tournament held a significant date the week before the Masters for much of its existence.
There were only about 46,000 people in Wilmington proper when the tournament left after its final playing in November 1971, and approximately 115,000 residents in the Brunswick, Pender and New Hanover three-county region.
The area is still a small city to host a significant event, with approximately 440,000 people combined in the three counties.
Arnold Palmer, Bob Toski and Lloyd Mangrum were among the winners. Palmer won all of $1,700 when he was victorious in 1957.
Gary Player lost in a playoff in the late 1960s, while others who played in the tournament included Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Jimmy Demaret and Tom Weiskopf. Tom Watson and Lanny Wadkins played in the final year of the tournament as PGA Tour rookies. Jack Nicklaus played as a 19-year-old amateur in 1959, made the cut and withdrew to go to Augusta and practice.
Nicklaus later said he was unaware it was disrespectful to the tournament and its sponsors to withdraw, called it embarrassing and has said it was the only time he ever withdrew from a tournament while healthy.
The tournament took a hit when the Atlantic Coast Line railroad left Wilmington in 1960, taking 1,600 jobs with it, and the PGA Tour finally dropped the Azalea Open from its schedule in 1972 after it was played as an unofficial tournament in 1971 because its purse was just $35,000.
It was unable to keep pace with the established Greater Greensboro Open and new Heritage in Hilton Head Island, which featured much larger purses – each well over $100,000 in 1971.
It took 46 years, but the PGA Tour has returned for a one-year cameo appearance.
A moving target
James Hahn has the unusual task of defending his championship on a golf course that he had never played before this week.
The 2016 Wells Fargo champion won the title at Quail Hollow Club, which is preparing to host the PGA Championship in August, hence the one-time move to Eagle Point Golf Club.
“The bad part about not defending at Quail Hollow is that I can’t take any of the good memories that I had from last year into this year because we’re playing on a different golf course, but hopefully that will be the case when I go back to Quail Hollow for the PGA Championship,” Hahn said. “But anytime you could come to a golf tournament as the defending champion, it doesn’t matter what course I’m at. It feels good and the crowd’s definitely behind me, I’ve got a lot of guys cheering me on out there.”
Hahn won last year after entering the tournament off eight consecutive missed cuts and having to battle thoughts of a career change.
Thus far this season Hahn has only missed four cuts in 14 tournaments, but finishes of ninth and 15th in the fall are his only top-20s. Following his win last year, a tie for fifth in the Deutsche Bank Championship playoff event was his only top-20 in 11 events, so he has three top-20s in 25 events since his victory.
“I’ve been in this situation before, made a bunch of cuts but I finished in the 40s,” Hahn said. “So the good thing is I’m making cuts, playing the weekend, getting some experience out there. But I can just remember last year having missed eight straight cuts, it seems like a major improvement, so just baby steps.”
The field’s best
The tournament features seven of the top 20 players in the Official World Golf Ranking led by No. 1 and Coastal Carolina alumnus Dustin Johnson and including No. 11 Adam Scott, No. 12 Alex Noren, No. 13 Jon Rahm, No. 14 Paul Casey, No. 15 Patrick Reed and No. 20 Phil Mickelson.
It also has 17 of the top 50 players in the world, with other notables including Jim Furyk, Bill Haas, Davis Love III, J.B. Holmes, Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson, Ernie Els, Kevin Kisner, Daniel Berger and Emiliano Grillo.
The Wells Fargo Championship is being broadcast live from 2-6 p.m. both Thursday and Friday on Golf Channel, from 1-2:30 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday on Golf Channel, and from 3-6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday on CBS.