Perhaps you’ve heard the story before. Or, maybe you’ve never been told of the courageous battle which took place over 46 years ago. Whatever the case, the story merits telling again. It’s the story of Skip Alexander, a PGA Tour player of the late 40’s. His bravery and determination to rise above tragic misfortune left an impressive and poignant mark in the history of golf. His remarkable achievement has not been surpassed, nor should it be forgotten, because Skip Alexander was truly a legend among his peers. Skip was born in Philadelphia in 1918, and grew up in Durham, NC near a golf course in the country. He became a caddie at the course where the pro, Henry Poe, helped teach him to play.
A LEGEND AMONG HIS PEERS
Skip attended Duke University, graduating in 1941. He became the star of Duke’s golf team – but that wasn’t the only credit Skip would earn during his collegiate career. He was also the North-South Amateur and State Amateur Champion following graduation. Skip began serving his PGA apprenticeship under Dugan Aycock (former Carolinas PGA president) at the Lexington Golf Club in Lexington, N. C. The PGA required aspiring golf professionals at the time to serve a five-year apprenticeship before they were eligible for PGA membership.
His apprenticeship was interrupted, though, when he answered the call of duty and served four and one-half years in the military. He continued to work for Aycock upon returning from the service. Skip earned three years of credit toward his PGA apprenticeship for his service during the war. When his eligibility became effective in 1947, he began playing the PGA Tour. Over the next three years, he accumulated three 1st place finishes in Tour events (the Tucson Open-1948, the National Capital Open-1948, and the Empire State Open-1950) as well as three satellite tournament 1st place finishes in 1947. He also had fourteen 2nd and 3rd place finishes, and over 38 top 10 finishes.
Skip recalled, “He was very kind to me. He played right and left-handed, and I started off playing left-handed with clubs he helped me get. But (left-handed clubs) were so scarce and hard to find at the time, I changed to right-handed.”
In 1948, after a very successful first year on the tour, Skip was married to his very lovely bride, Kitty. They were blessed with the birth of their daughter, Bunkie, in 1949. Skip comments about the tour life, “In ’49 I restructured my life and it was kind of tough traveling. We traveled with the baby in’50. We had a suitcase that made into a bed, so we did all right. But it was a whole new life. We had several log hops (by car), for instance from Tucson to San Antonio, TX.
That was one of the big ones. And from Houston to Philadelphia, that was another one. The tour didn’t have much money at that time. I hate to say this, but I was fifth leading money winner one year and made $18,000 or a little more. And the leading money winner made $ 27,000 or $ 32,000. So we had to make the cut and finish in the top ten to even stay out on the tour.
We (tour players) were just a group of vagabonds traveling together. We were a close-knit group cuttin’ up the same pie every week )75-85 players).”
In spite of the rigors of tour life and exhibition play, Skip earned enough points to play on the Ryder Cup team in 1949 under non-playing captain Ben Hogan. In 1950, he was well on his way to participating in the next Ryder Cup tournament, holding third position after seven months of competition. In the fall, however, tragedy struck. On September 24, 1950, Skip was aboard a Civil Air Patrol plane flying from Kansas City to Louisville, when the plane crash-landed in Evansville, Indiana. Of the four people on board (Skip and three wingmen), Skip was the only survivor.
Skip was hospitalized in Evansville with severe burns over much of his body. Fortunately, Kitty was not with him on this trip. She learned of the accident when Skip called and told her to take the baby to Durham to “Mother and Daddy”, and come to the hospital because he “was going to be there for a couple of weeks.” Skip remained hospitalized in Evansville for three months, then was moved to Duke University Hospital, where he endured five more months of plastic surgery. He recalls thinking to himself, “I’ve gotta try to play golf again.” His intentions seemed unthinkable since his injuries rendered Skip unable to grasp a golf club. “My hands were all burned and (now) they’re all skin grafted. The extensors and (other) parts of the fingers were contracted so (tightly) that I didn’t have any openings. The doctors opened them up. They took a knuckle out and fused the (remaining) two knuckles together so they would fit a golf club.”
Skip returned to the game he loved so much after numerous trips to the hospital and more than 75 operations. He began playing and practicing again, while working as the head pro at Lakewood Country Club, now known as St. Petersburg Country Club in St. Petersburg, FL. He used his one-month vacation to play a few tournaments, trying to earn more points to solidify his declining position on the ’51 Ryder Cup team. He played in Albany, where he was defending champion, in Sioux City, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Although he did not earn additional points, he maintained a spot on the team due to his exceptional play prior to the plane crash. Basically, what the other team members accomplished in nearly two years, Skip did in only seven months!
I asked him to discuss his ’51 Ryder Cup taking 3 days to play when they only had 2 matches. I said, “Well, it was an unusual thing. (Someone) called me this past year and wanted to know why the Ryder Cup took 3 days to play when they only had 2 matches.” He said ‘In North Carolina when Carolina plays Tennessee in a football game on Saturday, nobody watches golf.’ So they took the day off and we all went to the football game. But it was cold and (Dutch) Harrison got sick and Snead came to me and said, ‘Can you play?’ I told him, ‘Yes, I can play,’ but I was all bandaged up; my hands were bleeding. I played John Panton, the Vardon Trophy winner, Order of Merit winner, leading money winner and everything. I’d never walked 36 holes before that, and it was a 36-hole match. So I took off, and every time I played a hole, I wondered if I could play the next. But it worked out all right (chuckling). I beat him 8 and 7, which as I heard, was the biggest margin that anybody had won by until Kite tied it. I think he won 8 and 7. I three-putted number 10 though, in that afternoon round, or I might have won 9 and 8. I remember wondering if that was the beginning of the end and I wouldn’t win another hole.”
There are ten on a team and only eight players play each day. For Sunday’s match I don’t know whether Snead knew that I was going to play and John Panton and (Sam) was just forfeiting the match or leading the lambs to the slaughter. But having to play their number one man, I wouldn’t have been the choice. I’d have had Hogan play him.”
Skip continued to play in a few Tour events after his ’51 Ryder Cup record-setting match. He qualified for a tournament in Orlando and failed to make the cut. He also played at Inverness in Toledo, where he finished sixth. He adds, “I played in a couple of Masters, but didn’t have any success playing on the Tour after the accident.”
Skip’s love for golf steered him back to Lakewood Country Club, now known as St. Petersburg Country Club. He continued his golf career as the distinguished head professional for 34 years. Upon retiring 12 years ago, he was donned “Pro Emeritus.” In addition to his numerous awards, Skip holds the honor of being a member of the Duke University Hall of Fame, the Carolinas Sport Hall of Fame and the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame. He has always been regarded as an esteemed player and instructor of the game, with several accomplished students reaching prestigious gains through his tutelage. One example is his son, Buddy, who was the National Amateur Champion in 1986, and is now the men’s golf coach at the University of Florida.
One of Skip’s Idols is Horton Smith, the 1934 and 1936 Masters champion. “I patterned my putting after his style…….upright and reverse overlapping grip, and I putted with one of his putters, a Spalding Horton Smith putter, even though I worked for Wilson,” Skip said. He continued, “I’ve used Wilson since 1936. I helped develop the X31. I played with the goosenecks and the Dynaweight Staffs. I’ve got a good driver now. It’s a titanium, ultra light shaft……medium. It’s a good driver. I think that all good players have a driver, a wedge and a putter that they can rely on. They are the important clubs. And I think the shaft is the heart and soul of a golf club. They make a lot of them, and a lot of them look alike and feel alike. But, like guns, some shoot straight and some shoot crooked.”
On August 1, 1996, Skip was challenged with another setback; he suffered a stroke. But working his way back to the golf course did not take long. He explains, “I had some home therapy and I used a walker for about a week or so, but I sneaked out there and hit some balls. It was probably three weeks before I played. Now I feel like a kid again. I’m trying to break 100, then 90, then 80, then 70, then 60. I did all that once, and now I’m starting over and I’m trying to break 90. I had 84 the (other) day……….. that’s as good as I’ve had. For a little baby golf course, (it’s 6800 from the blues and we play 6300) I struggle to get to the greens.”
Struggle or not, Skip maintained a momentous passion for golf and played nearly every day. He is still regarded as a master of the game, with professionals and amateurs alike who sought him out for advice or an occasional lesson. He and Kitty resided in St. Petersburg in the home they built in 1958, which is adjacent to the 8th tee at St. Petersburg Country Club. Their family grew to include four grandchildren. While watching his grandchildren grow up, Skip also enjoyed following the 1996 National Champions in college football, the University of Florida Gators. His loyalty to the Gators was clearly evident, as every morning he hopped into his blue and orange Beetle and headed to the club for another game of golf.
Skip Alexander passed away in 1997.