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Miracle at Pinehurst: From flames to glory

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/23/43/1kLh4U.Em.138.jpeg|405
    Tufts Archives - Courtesy of Tufts Archives
    Skip Alexander strikes a pose at Pinehurst prior to the 1951 Ryder Cup.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/23/43/BOV5n.Em.138.jpeg|252
    Courtesy of Duke University - Courtesy of Duke University
    Skip Alexander was a star golfer for Duke from 1938-40. Alexander, second from left in this 1940 photo next to Duke golf coach, Dumpy Hagler, would face tragedy, then be thrust into the golfing spotlight.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/15/01/03/1huvWC.Em.138.jpeg|420
    - Courtesy of Buddy Alexander
    Skip Alexander, left, shares a moment with his son, Buddy, after Buddy Alexander won the 1986 U.S. Amateur golf tournament.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/23/43/RRgr1.Em.138.jpeg|278
    Tufts Archives - Courtesy of Tufts Archives
    The American and British flags are raised at Pinehurst prior to the 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst No. 2 as the team from Great Britain looks on.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/06/14/23/43/H92tT.Em.138.jpeg|193
    Tufts Archives - Courtesy of Tufts Archives
    The U.S. 1951 Ryder Cup team poses at Pinehurst before its victory over Great Britain. Skip Alexander is second from the far right, in glasses. Ben Hogan is second from the far left. Sam Snead, the U.S. team’s captain that year and also one of its star players, is fifth from right. Charlotte’s Clayton Heafner is third from right.

PINEHURST That Skip Alexander survived the plane crash at all is hard to imagine.

That he came back only a year later, playing in the 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst No. 2 in one of the most extraordinary individual Ryder Cup matches ever – well, that seems like an outright miracle.

Of all the stories in Pinehurst’s 100-plus years of existence, the tale of Alexander ranks as one of the most unlikely – and unknown – in the golf mecca’s history. For one incredible day, Alexander did something he would later recall as the biggest thrill of his life.

“That was one of his favorite stories, and he was a great storyteller,” Buddy Alexander said of his late father Skip, who died in 1997.

Skip Alexander had 17 surgeries after suffering grievous injuries in the fiery 1950 plane crash, which occurred in Evansville, Ind., and killed the other three people aboard. More than 70 percent of his body was burned. He shattered his ankle. His hands were in terrible shape.

Doctors considered amputating the pinky fingers on both of Alexander’s hands because he was never going to be able to move them again.

Instead, Alexander brought a golf club into the operating room. He told the doctors to fuse his pinkies into curved positions so he could still grip a golf club.

“They molded his hands around the club,” said Kitty Alexander, Skip’s widow. She is in her late 80s and lives in a retirement community in Florida. “He told the doctors that if he could just swing a golf club again, that would really help him. They didn’t really think he was going to play golf again. But once they did that, he knew that he would.”

‘His hair was on fire’

Born in 1918 in Philadelphia, Stewart “Skip” Alexander was raised mostly in Durham. He learned to play at Durham’s Hillandale Golf Course. He was good enough that he was recruited to play at Duke, where he became one of the best golfers in school history.

Alexander led Duke to three Southern Conference titles during his collegiate career from 1938-40 and twice won the conference’s individual title. He served in the U.S. Army for four years during World War II, then got out and turned pro in 1946.

From 1946-50, Alexander steadily became one of the best golfers in America. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds and always wearing glasses, he cut a distinctive figure. He also outdrove almost everyone on tour.

Alexander won three PGA Tour events during that span. He finished fifth on the money list one year (which meant he earned about $18,000). He made the U.S. Ryder Cup team for the first time in 1949, going overseas to play against Great Britain. Although he lost his only match, the U.S. team won.

By 1950, the Alexanders had a daughter, nicknamed “Bunkie” for all the bunkers Skip had seen on his Ryder Cup trip overseas. The three of them frequently traveled together on the tour, using a suitcase as a makeshift crib.

In September 1950, with his family back in their Lexington, N.C., home, Alexander, 31, got what he thought was a break. After a tournament in Kansas City, he wanted to fly home to see his family before starting a series of golf exhibitions in South America. But he couldn’t find a flight home.

An officer in the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force, heard Alexander tell this story and said a small plane would be leaving for Louisville soon. Would Alexander like to catch a ride on a military aircraft to Louisville? Then there were commercial flights from Louisville that he could catch to North Carolina.

It was the sort of favor a sports star might get. Alexander gladly accepted. The other three people on the plane were all members of the Civil Air Patrol.

The plane crashed in Evansville, Ind.

A few minutes later, while on the ground, it exploded.

Just before the explosion, Alexander was able to force a door open and get out of the wreckage.

“He kicked the door out of the plane to get out,” Buddy Alexander, Skip’s son, said. “That’s how he shattered his ankle. His hair was on fire, and he burned his hands badly putting that out. Then he ran away from the plane on that broken ankle.”

The lone eyewitness to the crash helped douse the flames on Alexander. He was rushed to the hospital and remained coherent, asking to call his wife and downplaying the seriousness of the crash.

Take the baby to Durham (where Skip’s relatives were) and come fly to Evansville, he told her. I’m going to be in the hospital awhile.

“He said he had just hurt his hands and face a little bit,” Kitty Alexander recalled.

Kitty Alexander did come to Indiana. But she couldn’t get a direct flight. Another flight got canceled. Eventually, she had to travel the last part of her trip by bus – and that bus went right by the plane’s crash site a few minutes before it arrived in Evansville.

“That was pretty shocking to look at,” Kitty Alexander said. “You could see what was left of the plane. And then I got to the hospital. Burn victims are pretty swelled up. It was pretty scary.”

‘A sacrificial lamb’

For much of the next six months, Alexander stayed in hospitals. He had one skin graft after another, mostly on his hands, first getting operated on in Indiana and then later at Duke. Fellow pros like Byron Nelson and Cary Middlecoff organized a benefit tournament for him.

“His attitude was he was going to get well,” Kitty Alexander said. “It was encouraging to him that they were fixing his hands, because he was determined to play golf again.”

Eventually, Alexander did. He came back for a couple of tournaments in the 1951 season. He did not play well, but he was able to finish. He said at the time he made his comeback fueled by “borrowed courage” that had been loaned to him by his family and well-wishers.

“When I could grip a club again, I began playing in tournaments between my hospital trips,” he recalled in a 1963 St. Petersburg Times story.

Alexander had earned so many Ryder Cup points already in 1950 before his accident that he squeezed onto the team in the 10th and final position for the 1951 Ryder Cup. It would be played in his home state at Pinehurst No.2, site of this year’s U.S. Open.

The Ryder Cup in those days was dominated by the U.S. Not until 1979 did the team opposing the Americans include the best golfers in all of Europe – in 1951, it was simply the best golfers in Great Britain. Usually, the British team did not have the depth to stay with the Americans.

The best player on the British team in 1951, however, was a Scotsman named John Panton. In much the same way as Arnold Palmer, Panton was popular enough in Scotland to have a drink named after him. Ginger beer mixed with a dash of lime cordial was and is called a “John Panton.”

The event would be held in early November 1951 at Pinehurst, with “pairs” matches held on Friday and 36-hole “singles” matches on Sunday. On Saturday, the U.S. and British teams would attend the Tennessee-UNC football game 70 miles away in Chapel Hill.

Sam Snead was the captain of the American team. He and Ben Hogan – who had made a successful comeback from a near-fatal car accident – were the best two players on the American team. Hogan consulted with Snead on who to play where.

On the first day, eight U.S. golfers played. Alexander did not.

Then came the football game in Chapel Hill, which Tennessee won 27-0. A couple of the U.S. golfers, Alexander would later say, attended on a cold day and got somewhat sick.

With the final day looming on Sunday, the U.S. held a 3-1 lead. But the outcome was still in doubt with eight singles matches to go. Snead and Hogan debated whether to play Alexander.

“I can’t blame Sam for hesitating,” said Alexander in the 1963 newspaper story. “I hadn’t played 36 holes in one day since my accident.”

Said Alexander’s son Buddy, who would later coach the University of Florida’s golf team to two national championships: “Hogan sort of insinuated that he didn’t think Skip could play because he didn’t think Skip could play 36 holes. But Snead finally said, ‘No, he made the team. He’ll play.’ 

Then came the decision as to whom Alexander would play. Snead decided it would be Panton. “I think,” Buddy Alexander said, “they put him out there as a sacrificial lamb.”

Bleeding and limping

It was a blustery day in Pinehurst on Nov. 4, 1951. The players dressed in sweaters. The course was playing “very long,” Skip Alexander would recall.

For the first 10 holes, the match was dead even. And then, amazingly, Alexander started pulling ahead of Panton.

On one hole, Alexander hit the ball over the green and up against a pine tree. With no right-handed shot available, he flipped a wedge over, chipped the ball left-handed – and knocked it into the hole.

Much like today, playing “par golf” often won on Pinehurst No. 2 in 1951. Alexander started stringing together pars on the back nine. Panton kept putting “5s” on his scorecard – he made seven of them on the back nine of the first 18 holes.

Alexander had piled up a big lead, but he wasn’t used to playing more than 18 holes. His hands were bleeding. His limp was pronounced. Still, he kept fighting and winning holes in the match-play event. Late in the afternoon, he and Panton came to the 29th hole of the day – No. 11.

“As Dad would tell the story for many years later,” his son recalled, “the 11th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 comes back toward the clubhouse. His ankle was killing him. His hands were bleeding because they didn’t callous particularly well. He was out of dry towels from the bleeding. And he would always say the same famous line when he ended the story: ‘So I just had to dust his a-- off right there.’ 

And Alexander did. He won the match 8 and 7, which was the largest margin of victory that weekend. It remains one of the largest margins ever in Ryder Cup history. The U.S. team won the overall match by a similarly whopping margin, 9.5 to 2.5.

‘He wasn’t bitter’

That 1951 Ryder Cup turned out to be Alexander’s shining moment in golf. For that one day, everything felt right.

But in general, he couldn’t hit the ball nearly as far as he used to. It was difficult for him to walk 18 holes for four days in a row like a PGA event requires, and riding in a golf cart back then was out of the question. After the accident, Alexander never could run again. He walked with a limp.

He was still a pretty good player,” Buddy Alexander said, “but he just couldn’t walk 18 holes without a pretty significant amount of pain. That’s what did him in as far as his career was concerned.”

Skip Alexander wasn’t finished with golf, however. He was hired as a club professional in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he held that position for more than 30 years.

“He knew how to charm people and he worked it for all it was worth,” his widow, Kitty Alexander, said with a laugh. She and Skip Alexander were married nearly 50 years. “He was a born entertainer. He loved people, and he worked hard at amusing them.”

Skip and Kitty’s son, Buddy Alexander, won the 1986 U.S. Amateur. He coached Florida’s golf team for 27 years before recently retiring.

Skip Alexander never complained about the loss of his promising career at age 31, his son said.

“He wasn’t bitter,” Buddy Alexander said. “Every now and then we’d be watching a Masters or U.S. Open on TV and he’d say, ‘I wish I could have had a few more chances at those babies.’ ” But other than that, he was always very positive about his life. And I’m awfully glad he made it.

“I was born in 1953. If he hadn’t made it out of that plane in 1950, I wouldn’t be here, either.”

Skip Alexander played golf almost every day until the day he died at age 79 in 1997. On that day, he skipped a planned golf game. Instead, he made notes for a club tournament he wanted to hold and asked his wife to take them down to the pro shop for him.

She said she would. He lay down to rest.

“I took it down to the golf shop, came back home and he was gone,” Kitty Alexander said. “I guess you could say it was kind of peaceful.

“And after all he went through in that plane crash, I believe he deserved a peaceful passing like that.”

As for the miracle he performed in 1951 at Pinehurst, it has been largely forgotten. Nearly everyone on both of those Ryder Cup teams has died, and it happened so long ago that golf history has largely buried it.

But in a 1959 St. Petersburg Times newspaper story, Skip Alexander called the match against Panton “the biggest thrill of my life.” The reporter asked why.

“I had nothing,” Alexander recalled. “No distance. The grooved swing was gone. I just had nothing on which to rely. But I won.”

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