CHARLESTON, S.C. – Just outside the men’s locker room at the Country Club of Charleston, the site of this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur, are several wood plaques that detail a few of the major competitions held at the 112-year-old club.
One of them lists the top-five finishers at The Tournament of the Gardens Open, a PGA Tour event that was contested at the club from 1933-37, with Country Club of Charleston club professional and World Golf Hall of Fame member Henry Picard winning three times and finishing runner-up once. Picard, who was at C.C. of Charleston from 1925-34 and lived in Charleston in his later years, would win the Masters in 1938 and the PGA Championship a year later.
But the largest plaque is dedicated to the Azalea Invitational, an amateur competition that was started shortly after World War II. It has been held at the club every year since 1946, except for 1990-91 after Hurricane Hugo ripped through the region, and in 2006 when the Seth Raynor layout was undergoing renovations.
The Azalea has produced several champions who have gone on to win USGA championships, including two-time winner Webb Simpson (2004 and 2007), the 2012 U.S. Open champion; Buddy Alexander, the 1986 U.S. Amateur champion; Dale Morey, a two-time USGA Senior Amateur champion; David Eger, the 1988 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion; and D.J. Trahan, the 2001 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion who is now a club member.
|Frank Ford III dominated the Azalea Invitational in the 1980s and early '90s. (USGA/Steve Gibbons)
Other notable champions include Billy Joe Patton, Dick Siderowf, Ryuji Imada, Spencer Levin and two-time U.S. Open qualifier Cheng-Tsung Pan, who is currently the No. 1 player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
One father-son tandem has won – Buddy Alexander’s son Tyson prevailed in 2009 and 2010 – and the Country Club of Charleston grandfather/grandson duo of Frank Ford and Frank Ford III own a combined 10 titles.
“The club just supports amateur golf,” said Ford III, the general chairman of the 2013 Women’s Amateur, who has claimed a record six Azaleas. “Playing and competing has always been part of the legacy of this club.”
In 1909, the Country Club of Charleston, along with Columbia (S.C.) Country Club, Greenville (S.C.) Country Club, Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club and Cape Fear (N.C.) Country Club, the oldest private club in North Carolina, formed the Carolinas Golf Association.
After Picard arrived at the Country Club of Charleston from Plymouth, Mass., he helped to organize the Tournament of the Gardens Open in the fledgling days of the PGA Tour. Walter Hagen won the inaugural event, but after five playings, it was canceled, Ford III said, due to the arrival of World War II.
When the war ended, the club wanted to continue its involvement with championship golf. Frank Ford was one of the founders of the Azalea, which drew the best amateurs from the region.
“It wasn’t a national event,” said Ford III. “We didn’t get players from California or New York. The golf was a little more social. There were only 20 to 25 guys who were serious.”
Over the years, the Azalea evolved into one of the top events of the spring. This year’s event in March featured several elite players, including Jim Liu, the 2010 U.S. Junior champion; Michael Miller, who helped New York to the 2012 USGA Men’s State Team championship; and Scott Harvey, one of the top mid-amateur golfers in the South.
Since the early 1950s, a junior Azalea has been contested. It was first called the Esposito, named for former head professional Al Esposito, who started the event. Today it’s called the Beth Daniel Azalea Junior, named for the Hall of Famer and two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who learned the game at the Country Club of Charleston.
In the past 30 years, the club has also hosted a senior Azalea for the 55-and-over set.
Although he has won six Azalea Invitationals, Ford III has yet to win a senior title. A neck injury has held him back the past couple of years.
The Ford family’s legacy pervades the club. A portrait of Frank Ford Sr. graces the main hallway of the club entrance. He won the first two Azaleas and 11 Charleston City Amateur titles. Ford III has carried on the family tradition, having been a two-time semifinalist at the USGA Senior Amateur along with his six Azalea wins.
When he claimed his third Azalea title in 1988, Ford defeated five-time USGA champion Jay Sigel in a four-hole playoff. Sigel birdied three of his last four holes, including No. 18, to force the playoff that Ford III eventually won with a birdie at the fourth extra hole.
“My grandfather came over and said, ‘Bubba, you can go ahead and stop right there,’” said Ford III. “I said, C’mon grand-daddy, I just snuck by this guy. And he said, ‘You played great, but I don’t want you to beat my record.’ I told him I was going to take care of that and I won the next three.”
Simpson, a member of the victorious 2007 USA Walker Cup Team, needed a two-hole playoff to win his second Azalea over Walker Cup teammate Billy Horschel in 2007. Three years earlier, he had played a remarkable bunker shot at the 72nd hole to edge Todd White by a stroke.
The success of the Azalea led the club hierarchy to contact the USGA about hosting a national championship. When the 2013 Women’s Amateur became available, they jumped at the opportunity. They also received a major boost from Kathy Beard, who helped run the 1991 Ryder Cup for The PGA of America at nearby Kiawah Island, as well as the World Cup of Golf in 1997.
“We couldn’t have done it in two years without her,” said Ford III.
The 113th Women’s Amateur continues – and enhances – the club’s championship legacy.
“There’s something about the culture of this place that just loves golf tournaments,” said Ford III. “This course gives everyone a chance. My mom can come out here and bounce the ball along and get it to the green. We can also have the best amateurs and if we get the right conditions, par is not a bad score. You saw that [on Monday] when only one player broke par. There are a lot of days at the Azalea when nobody breaks par.
“We’re just privileged to have the USGA here. There’s a real buzz around the club.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.