Skip Alexander, PGA Tour Golfer Who Survived Plane Crash

golfer Skip Alexander
Skip Alexander was a PGA Tour golfer of the late 1940s and early 1950s whose career was off to a promising start until he suffered serious burns and other injuries in a plane crash. In fact, Alexander was the sole survivor of that crash.

He still managed several wins and played in two Ryder Cups, including one after the crash in which he shocked everyone by posting a big win despite playing with bleeding hands.

Full name: Stewart Murray Alexander Jr.

Date of birth: August 6, 1918

Place of birth: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Date and place of death: October 24, 1997 in St. Petersburg, Florida

Nickname: Skip, of course

PGA Tour Wins: Alexander won three PGA Tour events.

The Plane Crash: 'I Was a Little Fire Running From a Big Fire'

On September 24, 1950, Skip Alexander was in Kansas City, Missouri, and needed to get to Louisville, Kentucky. To speed up the trip, he caught a ride on a small Civil Air Patrol plane headed to Louisville.

Everything was fine until the plane was over Evansville, Indiana, and the reserve fuel tank malfunctioned. Several months later, Alexander described what happened next to a reporter from the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Evening Independent newspaper:

"Since we were near the Evansville airport, we banked in to land and almost made it, crashing on the edge of the field. The next thing I remember was trying to force my way out of the cabin door and meeting a wall of flames. I quickly shut the door and opened it again, running out of the wreck on my broken left ankle. I guess I got about 50 yards before I collapsed and the fuel tank exploded."
Alexander was the only one who made it out; the other three men on board were killed, either in the initial crash or in the explosion.

And Alexander was badly injured: He caught on fire himself rushing through the flames to get out. As he ran, his clothes melted onto his skin and his skin itself began melting. "I was a big fire running from a little fire," he explained, literally, years later.

He suffered severe burns over 70-percent of his body. His hands and fingers were so badly burned and mangled that doctors at first wanted to amputate his fingers. He eventually spent five months in hospitals and endured 17 operations, one of which made it possible for him to hold a golf club again because Alexander wanted to make every effort to keep playing.

"My hands were all burned and ... skin-grafted," Alexander recalled decades later for an article on the St. Petersburg Country Club website. "The extensors and (other) parts of the fingers were contracted so that I didn’t have any openings. The doctors opened them up. They took a knuckle out and fused two knuckles together so they would fit a golf club."

Basically, doctors saved his fingers and then set them in a position that allowed Alexander to wrap them around a golf club grip.

During the initial weeks after the crash, Alexander was in the hospital in Evansville, which was the hometown of 1944 PGA Championship winner Bob Hamilton. Hamilton was one of many fellow pros who visited Alexander in the hospital — so did Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Cary Middlecoff, among many others — and handled many things for him during the recovery process before Hamilton was transferred to Duke University Hospital to continue his recovery and rehabilitation.

On the day of his release, he was offered and accepted the job of head pro at St. Petersburg Country Club (then called Lakewood Country Club), which is where he and his family lived.

With His Hands Bleeding, a Shocking Ryder Cup Win

Before the plane crash, Alexander was well on his way to qualifying for Team USA in the 1951 Ryder Cup. After the crash, there was still plenty of time for other golfers to pass him in the point standings.

Alexander tried to play tournaments, hoping to protect his place on the team. He entered several PGA Tour events in 1951, and managed to play, but couldn't earn any more points.

He still made the team, however, testament to how well he was playing before the crash, and also to how his fellow pros viewed him. They wanted him there and felt he deserved the spot.

He was not expected to play in the Ryder Cup, though. It was more of a ceremonial place on the squad. After all, Alexander's hands were bandaged and bleeding when he showed up for the 1951 Ryder Cup. Plus, Ryder Cup matches were 36 holes at that time and Alexander had never walked a 36-hole match, not even when healthy.

But on the scheduled day off in-between the foursomes and singles (something that happened only at this Ryder Cup), Dutch Harrison got sick. Captain Sam Snead asked Alexander if he was capable of playing. Alexander, despite the condition of his hands, said yes.

Naturally assuming Alexander would lose, given his physical condition, Snead sent him out again the Great Britain team's No. 1 player that year, John Panton.

Decades later, Alexander, in that article on the St. Petersburg Country Club website, said he wondered if Snead, pairing him against Panton, "was just forfeiting the match or leading the lambs to the slaughter."

But off they went, and, despite his bleeding hands, Alexander started winning holes. But it was excruciating: "Every time I played a hole, I wondered if I could play the next," he said.

Alexander wound up not just winning the match, but winning it by an 8-and-7 margin — what was, at the time, the fourth-biggest margin of victory ever in a Ryder Cup singles match.

More About Skip Alexander

At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds Alexander was a large man for his era of golf. But he was known as a gentle man, too. Here's a story about his kindness:

The 1950 PGA Championship was played at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. Alexander had noticed a young boy hanging around outside the players' locker room with an autograph book, hoping to collect signatures as players came and went. Putting his arm around the boy, he led the youngster into the locker room , taking him around to all the players in turn, helping him get the autograph of everyone in the room.

That boy was 10-year-old Jack Nicklaus, whose father was a member at Scioto. Nicklaus grew up to become a pretty famous golfer himself, of course, and as an adult enjoyed visiting with Alexander when Skip traveled to Jack's part of Florida. Many years later Nicklaus wrote about the encounter at Scioto, saying that his strongest memory of that day was "how pleasant and considerate Skip was."

Skip Alexander grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where the family moved after his birth in Pennsylvania. He got into golf as a caddie, and the pro at the course where he caddied started teaching him the game.

Alexander went on to play college golf at Duke University from 1937-40, leading the team to two conference championships. He won the individual conference championship in 1939 and 1940.

His biggest amateur victory was the North & South Amateur in 1941. He turned pro later that year, but World War II, in which he served, interrupted. Following the war, Alexander went to work as an assistant pro at Lexington Golf Club in North Carolina.

He got his first pro tournament wins in 1946 at the Carolinas Open and the Gainesville Open, neither of which was a PGA Tour event. But those wins encouraged him to try the tour.

And he was quickly successful, winning twice in 1948. He had his best finish in a major that year (11th in the 1948 U.S. Open) and finished fifth on the PGA Tour money list. That propelled him onto Team USA for the 1949 Ryder Cup. In 1950, Alexander won the Empire State Open, beating Ky Laffoon in a playoff.

By all appearances he was a golfer on the rise. Then the plane crash happened and changed everything.

He tried playing tournaments again, and played in a few more majors, but the effects of his injuries from the plane crash were just too limiting. Instead he settled into a long and successful career as a club pro, serving as head pro at St. Petersburg CC from 1951 through his retirement in 1985.

Wilson made Skip Alexander-branded golf clubs into the mid- and late 1950s. In 1960, Alexander was named recipient of the Ben Hogan Award, given to golfers who returned to the game after suffering injuries or other physical problems. He was 79 years old when he passed away in 1997.

Alexander is a member of the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame, North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and Duke Hall of Fame. One of his children, Buddy Alexander, was a longtime college golf coach, first at Georgia Southern and then LSU, and, most notably, at Florida from 1988-2014.

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