The calendar says March, and that means the Azalea Invitational is on the elite amateur docket. One of the oldest amateur championships in America, this tournament, played annually at the Country Club of Charleston, was first won in 1946 by Frank Ford Sr. It’s hard not to note the importance of the Ford family golf dynasty when writing about the Azalea.
In Charleston, the Fords are to golf what the Kennedys have been to Democratic Party politics for the last 50-plus years. Frank Sr., who lived to be 100 before passing away in 2004, was the patriarch of a four-generation family that has won well over 100 amateur golf tournaments, most in the Charleston area. He was known as the “Wizard of Wappoo,” in reference to the nickname for the golf club, which borders Wappoo Creek. Ford probably could have played professionally but instead chose to run the family concrete business.
At the height of his game, he teamed with CC of Charleston pro emeritus and Masters champion Henry Picard to win numerous pro-am titles. They once beat Ben Hogan and Charleston head pro Al Esposito in an exhibition four-ball match at the club in front of several thousand onlookers. Hogan and Ford, then age 55, both shot 68, but Ford’s team prevailed when he eagled the par-5 15th hole. He would win the Azalea four times, and he won 18 club championships and 11 Charleston City Amateur titles.
Frank and his wife, Betsy, a good player in her own right, had three sons, Frank Jr., Tommy and Billy. Frank Jr. suffered from childhood polio but still became a skilled player; he was killed in an airplane crash in 1974, at age 44. Billy, the best of the brothers, played at the University of North Carolina, but he was a bon vivant, and he never reached his full potential on the course. Billy and Tommy each won several club championships at the CC of Charleston.
The brothers spawned seven grandchildren for Frank Sr., and the best of the bunch was Frank III, who would put his name on the Azalea trophy a record seven times. He has more than 20 USGA appearances to his credit, most recently advancing to the round of eight at the 2010 Senior Amateur. He won the Charleston City Amateur six times.
Since 2002, the winner of the Azalea has claimed the Frank C. Ford Champions trophy. Over the years, names such as Dale Morey, Billy Joe Patton, Dick Siderowf and Buddy Alexander have won the tournament. More recently, players who have advanced to the PGA Tour like Webb Simpson, Spencer Levin and Ryuji Imada found themselves in the winner’s circle.
The tournament field is an interesting blend of the young and not so young. This year it featured seven highly ranked juniors, including America’s No. 1 ranked junior Anthony Paolucci and 2010 U.S. Junior champion James Liu. The college ranks are typically well represented, largely from nearby schools like Clemson and Furman. And a bunch of prominent mid-ams, including three-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith also played. Of course, the Ford family was represented, this year by Frank III as well as fourth generation family member Cordes Ford (Frank Ford IV), a local attorney, who still has the course record, 9-under 62.
The Country Club of Charleston, designed by Seth Raynor in 1925, is a throwback, measuring just 6,600 yards. It doesn’t show up on many “best courses” ranking lists, but it is a real gem. The signature hole is the 11th, a redan hole reminiscent of North Berwick’s 15th. But the course is also well known for the Lion’s Mouth, the distinctive 16th hole green complex. The essentially flat golf layout typically plays firm and fast, and the key to navigating it is to know the winds that swirl constantly.
The course was beaten up by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and the Golf Club Atlas crowd thinks this was “cruelly beneficial,” as several unnecessary trees, planted after Raynor had gone, were destroyed. The Atlas blog entry for the course says “(it) now enjoys a great openness and expansive views across the property.” Brian Silva was brought in to restore the golf course in 2006, and most agree he did a masterful job.
Players come from as far away as California to play the Azalea each spring, which makes you wonder what makes the cross country trek so attractive. Leave it to 50-something mid-amateur Jim Lehman, from Minnesota, to explain: “You have a classic Seth Raynor golf course in a wonderful city. You have a pure, 72-hole, stroke-play event with a long tradition of great champions. And you have a membership that truly embraces the tournament and makes you feel very welcome. What more can you ask?”