Professional Golfer Skip Alexander's 6th place finish at the Kansas City Open, in the waning weeks of the 1950 PGA season, moved him to 8th among the season's leading money winners. But just as important, he also earned precious qualifying points for the 1951 Ryder Cup matches to be held before a home crowd in his golf-crazy state of North Carolina, at the famed Pinehurst No. 2 course.
In an era dominated by legendary names as Hogan, Snead, Mangrum and Demaret, Alexander's success was not surprising. He had a sterling collegiate career at Duke University from 1937 to 1940. He won the prestigious North and South Amateur and turned professional in 1941. During World War II, Alexander spent four and a half years as a member of the Air Corps, serving mostly in the Pacific Theater. After the war, he returned to finish his apprenticeship and joined the PGA Tour in 1947. He won three non-PGA satellite tournaments in his inaugural year. In 1948, he won the Tucson Open, the National Capital Open, finished 11th in the US Open at Riviera, and golf authorities stamped him as the 'finest young golfer in America'. Alexander won only $6,000 in 1949, but played on the winning US Ryder Cup Team. In 1950, he won his third event, the Empire State Open and had amassed 276 Ryder Cup points in just seven months of the two year qualifying period. During his career, along with his three wins, he had finished 2nd and 3rd 14 times and finished in the top ten 38 times. He was sponsored by Wilson Sporting Goods Co., but always used a Spalding Horton Smith model putter and emulated Smith's putting style. He started playing left-handed, but switched to right-handed because left-handed golf clubs were hard to obtain.
The PGA of 1950 barely resembles the PGA of today. The tour amounted to a close-knit vagabond troupe of seventy-five or so players, following the sun from city to city, playing for a meager pile of prize money. "Just cuttin' up the same pie every week.", Alexander later mused. While the prize money was low, the players supplemented their income on exhibition tours and Alexander was scheduled to begin an exhibition in South America, shortly after the end of the Kansas City, Missouri, tournament, with fellow golfers Chick Harbert, Jack Burke, Jr., and Jimmy "The Wardrobe" Demaret.
In 1949, Skip and his wife, Kitty, had their first child, Carol Ann, whom they nicknamed "Bunkie". They traveled by car as a family and used a suitcase as a baby bed. The long haul trips that changed the geographic regions of the tournaments, Tucson to San Antonio and then from Houston to Philadelphia, made traveling especially hard on the young family, and sometimes his wife and daughter would stay at home in North Carolina. Alexander was traveling without his family at the Kansas City Open and wanted to make a quick trip home to visit his wife and daughter before he took off for the South American exhibition tour. However, no airline flight was available.
The Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary to the United States Air Force, was interested in engaging the services of the PGA to play in tournaments sponsored by the CAP to help create awareness of the organization. While the CAP was a civilian organization, the Air Force provided them with airplanes and fuel. A CAP officer heard of Alexander's plight, and offered to fly him to Louisville, Kentucky, where he would catch an airline flight home.
At 7:58 p.m., the Beechcraft T-7 military aircraft, with Alexander and three CAP officers aboard, was ten miles northwest of Evansville, flying at six thousand feet, when the pilot notified the Evansville Airport tower of its location. The communcation was normal and ended with the pilot saying, "Good night." The weather was clear. Three minutes later the tower heard a Mayday distress call from the plane and a report the fuel switch valve was not operating. The pilot attempted to make it to the Evansville Airport for an emergency landing. Workers at the nearby International Harvester plant (Later Whirlpool Corp.) were on strike and the plane came down in a steep bank and flew over a tent that had been constructed for the picketers. Other than being somewhat lower than usual, it garnered little attention. Both engines, seemingly, were running, although, throttled down. Seconds later, the plane went down in the Wansford Railroad Yard.
The crash's only eyewitness, Ralph Reutter, was driving his truck on St. George Road when he saw the plane hit the ground and "bounced like a rock does when skipped on water." It hit the recently installed C&EI Railroad track spur on the west side of the highway and then landed on the north/south tracks. There was no explosion, but the plane was surrounded by a blue haze of flames. One of the plane's engines and a wheel landed near the Dixie Bee Highway (Now US 41). Ruetter jumped from his truck, yelled back for someone to call for help, and ran towards the crashed plane.
Alexander forced the door open, but flames entered the airplane and he shut the door. He tried to put the flames out, but couldn't. He again forced the door open, made his way out and ran from the burning wreckage, but collapsed on his broken leg.
Reutter met Alexander with his clothes still on fire and helped extinguish the flames. Alexander's hair was singed, but his scalp was not burned. His clothing was charred and he had severe burns on his face, hands, arms and legs. Besides a broken leg, Alexander had a large cut on his hand. Reutter removed a sock and shoe from Alexander, still smoldering. The thirty-two year old Alexander, burned, broken and beaten, tells Reutter, "I'm done for.". By that time, other people had arrived to help and Reutter left Alexander and ran towards the plane. Alexander indicated there were three others left in the plane, but Ruetter saw only two men, both still alive, pinned in the wreckage. At that moment, the plane exploded into flames and the three Civil AirPatrol members caught in wreckage died instantly. In critical condition, Alexander was rushed to Deaconess Hospital where he arrived with severe burns over 70 percent of his body.
Fellow PGA golf professional and Evansville resident Bob Hamilton, the 1944 PGA Champion, and his wife had been to the movies and telephoned his mother to see if she wanted a magazine. She told him of the accident and that a nurse called requesting he come to Deaconess Hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital, he met Helfrich Field's PGA professional Morgan "Dutch" Rittenhouse, who also had arrived to assist Alexander. They found Alexander with his head in a baglike bandage and the nurse gently wiping the blood from his eyes. There was a slit for his eyes and a slit for his mouth. He rested in an oxygen tent and he spoke with a hoarse voice. The fingers, that helped prompt a sportswriter to refer to Alexander as the "Putting Precisionist", were severely burned and may have to be amputated.
Alexander had arrived at the hospital relatively coherent and talked with nurses, doctors and officials for almost two hours, but was unable to assist in any details of the crash. The medical staff stabilized his condition to 'very serious'. With the help of a nurse, he made a telephone call to his wife. Downplaying the seriousness of his situation, he asked his wife to take the baby to his mother in Durham and come to Evansville. June Hamilton, Bob's wife, had Alexander's wallet in an envelope where charred cloth surrounded an intact wallet. As the nurses prepared to administer morphine to Alexander, he asked Hamilton and Rittenhouse if they would find out how much money he had won earlier in the day. He had left Kansas City before the end of the tournament. His 6th place finish netted him $1,000, upping his season's earnings to over $15,000.
As the news spread, Alexander's friends began to call long distance. Lawson Little, the professional with, perhaps, the greatest amateur career, was among the first to call. In the beginning, Bob Hamilton fielded the calls. Mrs. Ben Hogan sent a touching letter to Alexander's wife, Kitty. Her husband had been in a near fatal car wreck in 1949 and was just now returning to the tour part-time.
Alexander would stay in Deaconess Hospital for over three months. Eventually, he would endure seventeen operations and five more months in a Durham, NC hospital. An operation on his hands would avoid amputation of the fingers, but would, by Alexander's request, remove and fuse knuckles and position his fingers permanently to grip a golf club.
Fellow golf professionals Byron Nelson, Clay Heafner and Cary Middlecoff organized a golf tournament to raise $10,000 in funds for Alexander. Wilson Sporting Goods renewed their sponsorship and Lakewood Country Club in St. Petersburg, Florida, offered him the job as head professional, a job he would accept. Alexander gave credit to the many supporting letters and telegrams to his recovery. "It was sort of borrowed courage", he said. His wife, Kitty, gave unflinching encouragement.
With his hands bandaged, Alexander returned to the tour in late 1951 to try and add to his Ryder Cup points total. He had started the 1951 season third place in points, but his position dropped to the 10th and final selection. He would not accumulate any more points that season but the 276 points he earned in only seven months in 1950 withstood late challenges by Johnny Palmer and Jimmy Turnesa and qualified him for the 1951 Ryder Cup Team. The two matches were scheduled for on Friday and Sunday, and the players took Saturday off went to a football game because , as Alexander stated, "In North Carolina, when Carolina plays Tennesee in a football game on a Saturday, nobody watches golf."
Alexander did not play the first day of the two-day matches, and wasn't scheduled to play the final day, when Dutch Harrison became ill and Captain Sam Snead approached Alexander and asked him, "Can you play?" Alexander, with hands bandaged and bleeding, said, "Yes, I can play."
Snead picked Alexander to play "Gentleman" John Panton in the single finals. Though never a full-time professional golfer, Panton was Europe's strongest player, winner of the Order of Merit for being the top money earner, and the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average. Some thought that Snead was 'forfeiting' the match . Others, including Alexander, thought America's strongest player, Ben Hogan, should have played Panton. "Didn't make sense.", said Alexander.
The singles matches were 36 holes and Alexander's hands were bleeding and wrapped. Every hole, he thought, may be his last. Fourteen months removed from the accident, Alexander accomplished one of the greatest achievements in golf history, beating Panton by the largest, and yet unsurpassed margin, (8 and 7), in Ryder Cup history, and helped the Americans win the Ryder Cup.
However, the song of his career-to-be had run out of melody. The accident had left him unable to endure the rigors of the PGA Tour, and while Alexander would play a few more tournaments, including two Masters, he never won again. "I never did much on the tour after the accident", Alexander would say.
The basest emotion of a person who had lost their promising career under such cruel circumstances may have been bitterness. Skip's son, Buddy Alexander, who was the 1986 U.S. Amateur Champion and is the long-time men's golf coach of the University of Florida's Gators said, "Skip never openly thought he was robbed of a career, but perceived what happened as, I am lucky to be alive . However, it is my opinion, in private moments, especially during the four weeks of the majors, he had quite a few, what if moments. He knew how good he was. He took care of his body and was big, strong and long. He was younger than Hogan and Snead. His best golf was in front of him. He didn t have to be a genius to know his time was coming. Again, those are my words, not his. He never said anything like that to me or anyone that I know of, but he knew. Bitter would definitely not be the right word, more like interested in what might have been. He did play a lot of golf, enjoyed his job, his family and had a very rich life. He was larger than life to most who knew him. He was positive and happy."
In 1958, Alexander and his wife built a house on the 8th hole of Lakewood Country Club in St. Petersburg, Florida, (Now the St. Petersburg Country Club) where he had served since 1951 as head professional and retired in 1985. In the mid-1980's, Alexander was inducted into the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame, North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and the Duke University Hall of Fame.
Stewart "Skip" Alexander, Evansville's tragic visitor, played golf the day before he died, at age 79, in October, 1997.
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