WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The Wells Fargo Championship will pull into Eagle Point Golf Club May 1-7, bringing some of the top PGA Tour players in the world to Wilmington. For some, it will be their first look at a PGA Tour event, but it has others tripping down memory lane.
"We saw the best. I mean, we saw everything and everybody," Preston Crow said.
Crow was just a child when the PGA Tour made an annual stop in the Port City.
The Tour stopped in Wilmington from 1945-1971 (no events in 1947, '48) and went by various names -- Wilmington Open (1949), Wilmington Azalea Open (1950, 51), and Azalea Open Invitational (1965-71).
Early on, because of its spot on the calendar, it brought some of the legends of golf to town.
"Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Tom Weizkopf, you know, these guys all played here," said Joey Hines, the director of golf at Cape Fear County Club, which hosted the Azalea Open. "When you think about the players who have walked our fairways, I mean, Hall of Fame players and major champions, there aren't a lot of courses across the country that can say they've had that. It was special."
Early on, the event was played the week before the Masters, which brought a large number of players to Wilmington, but it was more than fine tuning their game that had them coming back year after year.
"The stories that I used to hear from the participants that played said that the Wilmington people treated them with such hospitality and Southern graciousness," Hines said. "They invited them in their homes to come stay with them and play. The money was not the draw back then."
For a young Arnold Palmer, the money was enough to bring him back.
In 1954, he was the low amateur at the Azalea Open. Three years later, as a pro who could pocket the money, he won the event.
Crow was there when Palmer won in 1957 and was pictured with golf legend during the awards ceremony.
"You knew of him because of his amateur record and he played at Wake Forest. What he became was incredible," Crow said. "You saw the friendliness early on. I mean, he was always smiling and would pat you on the head if he saw you. What he became later, you were not aware of in '57, but you knew you were seeing something."
Palmer may have been the biggest name to win the event, but the field had plenty of top-level talent from the Tour at the time. As the names grew bigger and bigger, the payouts, unfortunately, did not.
The tournament struggled in the '60s and lost its official Tour status in 1971.
Charm was enough to start the Azalea Open, but it wasn't enough to keep it.
"There were stories here of on Sunday afternoon having to pass the hat to the members to raise the funds to cover the checks for the pros," Hines said. "It just didn't have the funds to keep it going. A lot of the pros I talked to would actually play for more money gambling in the practice rounds against each other than they were able to win in the tournaments."
Money these days is no object. The total purse for the Wells Fargo Championship is $7.5 million dollars, but what that money can't buy are the countless memories and the way the Azalea Open helped shape the lives of those who grew up with it like Hines and Crow, who is now a United States Golf Association Rules Official.
"Completely influenced my adult life," Crow said. "I grew up on this course [Cape Fear Country Club] and what we had as children in little old Wilmington, North Carolina, and Cape Fear County Club can never be replaced."
"As a little kid I used to watch many of the greats play Cape Fear County Club and it was sad to see the tournament leave Wilmington," Hines added. "It's going to be a great week. I know how much excitement there is going on here at the club and hearing all the conversations around town, it's going to be fantastic."