North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
As an all-state selection in basketball and the Southeastern 3A Conference Athlete of the Year during his senior season at Laurinburg High School in 1965, Leonard Thompson had his choice of sports and schools to pursue in college.
He picked golf in general and Wake Forest in particular because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idol Arnold Palmer. And he did his part to add to the legacy of coach Jesse Haddock’s storied Deacons program.
Thompson helped Wake add ACC championships to its trophy case in 1967, ’68 and ’69, finishing as the conference runner-up in the individual competition as a senior in 1969. The Deacons finished among the top five in the country at the NCAA Tournament in each of those years as well.
“The team my senior year was arguably one of the best in college history,” said the two-time All-American, whose contributions earned him induction into the Wake Forest Sports Hall of Fame alongside Palmer and other golf luminaries such as Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins.
Although his professional career wasn’t as notable as those other former Deacons, Thompson did achieve his share of success on the PGA Tour. He scored his first victory in 1974 at the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in Florida, beating Hale Irwin by a stroke and Jack Nicklaus by two. His winner’s share of $52,000 might not sound like much today, but at the time it was the second-largest purse on the tour — $10,000 of which he donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Thompson won again at the Pensacola Open in 1977 and, while he remained consistent with more than 70 career top-10 finishes, he didn’t score his third and final victory until 12 years later at the Buick Open in 1989. He added three more wins to his resume after turning 50 in 1997 and joining the Champions Tour.
A noted workhorse who teed it up as much as he could during his career, Thompson became only the 10th player in history to play in at least 1,000 PGA Tour-sanctioned events before eventually scaling back his schedule and retiring from competition in 2016.