Stories of the Azalea Open, Great and Small

The PGA Tour's Azalea Open called Wilmington home from 1949 to 1971. Despite being one of the tour's smallest markets, Wilmington created a love affair with pro golf during those two-plus decades. We take a look at some of the people -- both here and afar -- who made the tournament so unique.

The Azalea Open's off-the-beaten-path approach was perfect for the Port City

Timeline of highlight moments in Wilmington's pro golf history

Photos from StarNews, Cape Fear Country Club and Associated Press archives

A friendship over decades

Watch the video here

Susan Love Lewis was an 11-year-old with two broken arms when she and her mother attended the 1954 Azalea Open. They saw a diminutive golfer wearing a derby cap on the first tee and asked him if they could follow him.

The upstart pro was Bob Toski, who not only won the tournament that year but also the $50,000 first prize at the World Championship of Golf later in the year and two other titles to earn PGA Player of the Year.

After the tournament on the 18th green, Queen Azalea Ella Raines awarded the winner’s check to Toski. As he finished his victory speech, he asked, “Where’s the little girl in the red hat?” Lewis walked out on the green and received a signed golf ball from the champion.

Lewis, a Wilmington native and resident, reconnected with Toski and his wife, Lynn, roughly 20 years ago. Lewis and Lynn Toski spoke frequently. Lynn passed away in 2012.

His tricks were a treat

Before the Bryan Brothers racked up millions of YouTube views with their trick shot exhibitions, Paul Hahn traveled the country performing at tournaments. (One half of the modern team, Wesley Bryan, is committed to play in the Wells Fargo Championship).

In 1954 he performed 300 exhibitions, earning $60,000 -- twice what the leading money winner earned that year on the PGA Tour. He was a regular at the Azalea Open in the 1950s.

One of his tricks was dangerous and 60 years later inspired John Daly, who used David Feherty as a similar nervous prop.

With no other volunteers available, Miss Scotty Wallace of Wilmington laid on the ground, flat on her back, and let Hahn swat a drive off a tee she held in her mouth. Hahn explained how he carried $100,000 in insurance in case he missed balata and cracked enamel.

Pay the man

Like most during that era, Bob Godley was still in high school when he caddied for Ted Kroll in the Azalea Open. There were no regular caddies who traveled with the Tour.

“He was a World War II veteran who had a great personality and a good short game,” Godley recalled. “He called me ‘Slim’ as I was skinny as a rail. The second year (1953) that I caddied for Ted he came in second (Jerry Barber won his first of a record three Azalea Opens that year). Ted won $1,200. He asked me how much I thought I ought to get paid. I said anything is fine. He gave me $100 plus 2 dozen new golf balls; I was thrilled.”

3s and 8s, and a lot of trust

  Harold Wells caddied for Art Wall Jr. two years in a row. In 1959, Wall was in contention and paired with Mike Souchak for the final round of a 36-hole Sunday finish.

“On the first tee of the second round, Mr. Wall turned to me and said, ‘Harold, I’m hitting a Titleist 3 and Souchak is hitting a Titleist 8. You make real sure you walk up to the right ball.’”

“So we get up to the eighth green, and the green is real crowded and I knew 90 percent of the people there. I walked up and both of them hit to the left of the green, kind of on the fringe on the left side, looked at the ball and it said Titleist 3, so I stood there. Souchak walked up to his ball, thought it was a Titleist 3 and said, ‘Art, you’re about to hit the wrong ball.’

"And Art looks at me and says, 'Harold,' and I said, 'Mr. Wall, This is a Titleist 3.' The crowd was silent. You could’ve heard a pin drop. I was 16 years old. Fortunately I had walked up to the right ball."

Wall went on to win the tournament.

Arnie attacks, and an army

Buddy Skipper lived in Lake Village, could walk to the Cape Fear Country Club course through the woods and caddied in several Azalea Opens.

“A large group of people were on the practice tee after I finished my round caddying and I asked what’s going on?” Skipper recalled.

Arnold Palmer was hitting practice shots so I checked it out. I had never seen anyone hit a ball so hard. He had this awesome swing. He ATTACKED the ball.

"In those days, they really needed caddies. We were allowed to skip school if we maintained a C average. One afternoon before the tournament started I had the good fortune of caddying in a group that included Arnie and his manager. It was only for nine holes. He was such a good personable fellow, you would not believe he was such a superstar.”

The King's Ransom

David Hall, who lives in Kure Beach, has a black-and-white photo of he and Arnold Palmer made during the 1958 Azalea Open. He was a student at Lake Forest Jr. High at the time, and he and and a friend decided to have a little boyish fun.

“We took turns walking beside Arnold and took a photo of each other. I doubt Arnie knew we were there, but we sure knew with whom we were walking,” Hall said.

“Years later as an adult, I would ask my golf buddies if they would like to have an autographed photo of Arnold Palmer. Of course any golfer would say "YES", and I would then hand them a copy with my personal signature on it. When they complained, I would say that it was autographed, and I never said it was Arnold's autograph.”

At his retirement, one of Hall’s friends presented him with a copy of the same photo, only this time it had a different inscription.

“He had removed my signature, and sent a copy of the photo to Arnold Palmer along with a note, telling him the story and requesting his autograph. My photo now has the following inscription:

'To David, Best Wishes, Arnold Palmer'"

The gambler, he broke even

The tall, wavy blonde-haired pro Al Besselink was a legend on -- and off -- the course. He overcame a triple-bogey 7 on the 71st hole in 1964 to nip Lionel Hebert by one shot for the Azalea Open crown.

The Associated Press, UPI and major newspapers across the nation covered the tournament.

When news of Besselink’s strong play hit the wire, bookies and such started calling the clubhouse asking tournament officials to hold the check.

One showed up at the course to collect his cash on Sunday afternoon, but Bessie "escaped."

Later that year, the PGA player committee put Besselink on probation for gambling.

Besselink told Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger about his three ex-wives in a 2002 feature. “One wife was the daughter of a Texas oilman. The other was the daughter of a prominent Main Line Philadelphia family. The third was the ex-wife of a well-connected Las Vegas builder. I don't ever hang around with no brokes. If you're a millionaire, I'll marry you tonight."

Besselink, 94, lives in a Miami nursing home. He’s one of six living Azalea Open champions.

He has gambled since his caddying boyhood, Bamberger wrote in 2002.

"If I couldn't bet, that would be terrible," he says.

A quiet puppy

  Charles Ray Black started caddying at Pine Valley when he was 12 years old and caddied in the Azalea Open.

“We had to go to school on Saturday mornings for two months to make up the time we missed in class during Azalea Open week. With that done, we all showed up at the caddy pen at Cape Fear on Monday morning. Pros would arrive for practice rounds and pick a caddy, after a short interview. It was like a customer picking a dog from a crowded dog pen,” he said.

In 1963, Black was waiting when Art Wall Jr. arrived on Tuesday morning.

“He had a reputation of being stern and sometimes tough on caddies.

 He asked me a few questions about my experience and asked if I could keep my mouth shut and refrain from giving him advice.

 I said yes and he said let's go. He had picked his puppy!”

Art was quiet while playing. In those six days Black caddied for him he did not club him, give yardages or read putts.

“I also shagged a lot of practice balls before and after each round. Clubs did not supply range balls back then, so each pro brought their own shag bag full of balls.”

Black made $50 for six days, was happy and bought a new golf bag.

“But the experience was more valuable than the pay,” he said. “In addition to getting to know Art, I met Gary Player, who played with Art the first two days, Dow Finsterwald, George Bayer, and other famous players.”

Keeping watch

Tommy Jacobs won four times on the PGA Tour and finished as runner-up in the U.S. Open and Masters.

The Azalea Open was a regular stop for him and he played well at Cape Fear, with three top-10 finishes. A third-place finish in 1964 was worth $1,500.

Players often shared a room to reduce expenses, and Jacobs frequently paired up with Tony Lema. One year, Lema was short on cash. He had a Rolex watch and offered to sell it to Jacobs for $500. Jacobs wasn’t sure that was a fair price. They left their downtown hotel and visited a jewelry store nearby. Jacobs bought a Rolex that day, just not the one Lema was selling. He bought a new one for $300, and his son, Keith, still wears the watch today.

Jacobs, 82, lived in Leland for about a decade and belonged to a group that owned and operated the Magnolia Greens Golf Club. He moved away a few years ago but still competes in the Legends of Golf Tournament, pairing this year with North Carolina native and frequent Azalea competitor Jim Ferree.

So close to a title

Harry Martin retired as the principal at Virginia Williamson Elementary in Brunswick County a couple years back. Many decades before, he walked around Cape Fear Country Club with the legendary Gary Player.

“You know, what you see on TV is exactly the way he is in person. He’s a great man. He is my idol in golf.”

Martin was 17 in 1968, a junior at New Hanover High. He worked in the pro shop at Cape Fear and caddied on the weekends to pick up extra cash.

“I got a pretty good reputation as being a pretty good caddie over there,” he said. “The caddiemaster said Mr. Player is coming and he’ll need a caddie. The first time I met him was in the parking lot. I introduced myself, he introduced himself and said, 'I don’t expect a whole lot from you,' asked me did I know the golf course pretty well, the basic stuff, and we worked well together.”

Player and Martin teamed to tie for the the lead through 72 holes of regulation. But journeyman pro Steve Reid drained a short birdie putt on the second playoff hole to earn his only PGA Tour victory.

For once, in a lifetime

Steve Reid won the Azalea Open in 1968 for his only PGA Tour victory in a 12-year career. His lasting memories are from the 24 hours following the short birdie putt he sank to beat Gary Player in a playoff.

“We got on a charter flight in Wilmington to go to Dallas,” Reid said. “And (fellow pro) Sam Carmichael, who was a friend of mine said, 'Where are you going to sit on the plane?'”

I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s a charter, there’s no assigned seating.’”

“He said, ‘Sit with me I have something I want to show you.’

"We sat in the back. He opened up his shag bag and pulled out a bottle in scotch.

"He said, ‘I knew you’d appreciate this and I didn’t want to open it in front of everybody because I didn’t want to share it with them. You’re the winner this week, I want to share it with you.’”

The charter arrived around 2 a.m. Reid arrived at the course on Monday afternoon and received a Thunderbird courtesy car, which was a weekly perk granted only to winners.

He piddled around the putting green, accepting congratulations from his peers but had little interest in practicing or playing a round.

Harold Henning told him, “I bet that fills a big hole in your life.”

Such a warm reception from his peers overwhelmed Reid, a Tour rabbit who overcame a bad temper and achieved the ultimate goal in his 12th year as a pro golfer. He was a champion and exempt player.

“I got in my car and went back to the hotel. Didn’t know where I was going, had directions, looking for street signs. I was indecisive, cut in front of somebody. They honked the horn. I started to give them the finger or something, my normal procedure, but I couldn’t get pi(---d) off. I just looked at him and grinned.

"I got to the hotel. I laid on the bed and looked at the ceiling and I just grinned. And I could not stop grinning. I’ve never had a feeling before or since with such a sense of satisfaction and peace with the world. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

Elementary, it's Watson

Hugh Primrose grew up playing golf at Cape Fear Country Club. He attended the Azalea Open throughout the 1960s and caddied in the tournament four times. The tournament was an unofficial event in 1971, but it attracted a strong group of young Tour players, including several promising rookies who became superstars.

One afternoon Primrose saw Tom Watson, who was fresh out of Stanford and wearing a bushy mustache.

“On 15 he was just short of the par 5 in two,” Primrose recalled. “He was waiting with his arms folded as his fellow competitors were playing up. When it was his turn, he took two looks, played the ball along the ground with about a 5-iron to within six inches, After seeing this I reached in my back pocket for the pairing sheet, while saying to myself, ‘Who in the hell is that?’”

Watson, of course, won eight major championships in a career that continues on the Champions Tour today.

Plenty of stars, but not these two

Practically every legend of golf from the 1940s, '50s, '60s, '70s and beyond made at least one appearance at the Azalea Open. Yet two stars are conspicuous in their absence. There’s a good explanation for both.

Photographs document Ben Hogan’s appearance at Cape Fear Country Club for an exhibition in the early 1940s when he was stationed at a nearby military base during World War II. But he suffered life-threatening injuries in a car wreck in February 1949, two months before the first Azalea. After he recovered, he played a limited schedule each year centered around the majors and preferred to tune-up for the Masters amid the warm breezes of Seminole Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Byron Nelson, forever a Texas gentleman, wrote a cordial note declining an early invitation, explaining that he retired in 1946 to become a rancher. Nelson played in the Masters and little else after that time.

Powered by  Jumpstart Georgia