Pinehurst Heritage Archive

Legendary Pinehurst caddie Willie McRae to be enshrined in CGA Hall of Fame

With McRae’s fellow caddies and family looking on, Carolinas Golf Association officials make announcement at Pinehurst No. 2

Willie McRae has caddied among the towering longleaf pines of Pinehurst for more than seven decades. On his 10th birthday, his father, also a caddie at Pinehurst, brought Willie to the golf course to work. It spawned a career few could ever hope to replicate.

On Thursday, the Carolinas Golf Association announced McRae, 83, will be enshrined in the CGA Hall of Fame in February. Joining McRae behind the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2 as fellow caddies and family members surrounded him, the CGA celebrated one of golf’s greatest careers.

“It’s a very proud moment for the Carolinas Golf Association to make this announcement at Pinehurst,” said G. Jackson Hughes Jr., the chairman of the CGA Hall of Fame selection committee. “Willie McRae has meant so much to so many people for so many years here at Pinehurst. It’s a well-deserved award.”

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Legendary Pinehurst caddie Willie McRae sits in the locker room of the Pinehurst clubhouse.

McRae’s legendary time at Pinehurst traces much of the area’s rise in the annals of American golf. He has caddied for five presidents, for celebrities from Mickey Mantle to Michael Jordan and many of golf’s greatest figures, including Donald Ross, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead.

“Willie McRae has meant so much to so many people for so many years here at Pinehurst. It’s a well-deserved award.” -G. Jackson Hughes Jr., CGA official

“I’ve always been thankful to be able to work at a place like Pinehurst,” McRae said. “Everybody’s always been so nice to me. They’ve always made me think I was the important person.”

McRae is one of just two living participants of the 1951 Ryder Cup, which was contested at Pinehurst. He has caddied in several of golf’s greatest championships, ranging from the Ryder Cup to multiple U.S. Opens and U.S Women’s Opens. A great player in his own time, in the 1950s the U.S. Army stationed McRae at Fort Dix instead of shipping him overseas, installing him instead as the captain of the golf team.

“Willie always says that everybody is somebody, that everyone has a right to be treated well,” said Pinehurst President Tom Pashley. “But what we all know is that Willie has always been one of the most important people at Pinehurst.

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“It’s nice to know that with his enshrinement into the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame, Willie’s picture will be on the Hall of Fame wall in The Carolina Hotel forever. To know that his family will always be able to walk by that photo and see how much Willie has meant to the game of golf is really special.”

McRae’s legacy continues at Pinehurst. McRae’s son, Paul, has been one of the leading instructors of the Pinehurst Golf Academy for more than 20 years, and his grandson, Darick, also caddies on No. 2. Willie McRae’s philosophy is the embodiment of the Pinehurst spirit: “To me,” McRae says, “everybody’s a celebrity. Everybody is special in their unique way.”

The Hall of Fame announcement was a wonderful moment for the McRae family, Darick said.

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Willie McRae, center, is joined by (l-r) the CGA’s Walter Todd Sr., CGA Executive Director Jack Nance, Pinehurst Resort President Tom Pashley and CGA Hall of Fame Selection Committee Chairman G. Jackson Hughes Jr. on the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2. The CGA announced on Thursday that McRae would be enshrined in the Carolinas Golf Association Hall of Fame in February. (Photo by John Gessner)

“It just shows the value of hard work and what it can do for you,” Darick said. “He’s 83 years old and has been caddying for 73 years, and today shows how that hard work pays off.

“It’s his inspiration that keeps me going. Now, I may not be doing it for 73 years, but today was awesome.”

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Steve Elkington’s Secret Golf recalls the 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst

 

A year ago, Steve Elkington’s golf show, Secret Golf, profiled legendary Pinehurst caddie Willie McRae. During the filming, Elkington called his longtime mentor Jack Burke, and McRae and Burke reconnected…for the first time since the 1951 Ryder Cup.

McRae and Burke are the last two living participants from the 1951 Ryder Cup. McRae, now 83, has been caddying at Pinehurst since he was 10 years old, and at 18, caddied for Fred Daly during the matches on No. 2. (Ben Hogan was in the same group.) Burke, now 93, was the youngest player in the victorious United States team, at 28.

A month ago, Elkington saw to it that McRae and Burke would meet one more time, and this week, released his show recalling the 1951 Ryder Cup online. There’s so much here, including a match between Elkington and the great broadcaster Peter Oosterhuis, played on Pinehurst No. 2. Elkington, to his great credit, has allowed us to post the show for you to watch free of charge for the next few days. We hope you enjoy it.

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No. 2 and The Old Course – The Ryder Cup Wager

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In 1951, Pinehurst No. 2 was the site of the Ryder Cup, very much a different event then than it is today. The Americans, led by Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, had little trouble dispatching the British team 9 ½-2 ½.

Obviously, things have changed.

While it has been 65 years since Pinehurst hosted the Ryder Cup, we still feel a lasting attachment to one of golf’s greatest events. It’s a proud moment in the storied history of Pinehurst.

Now, though, comes a chance at another Ryder Cup moment for Pinehurst – and for The Old Course at St Andrews.

It is the RYDER CUP WAGER.

Here are the particulars, and St. Andrews has accepted:

  • If Team USA wins, The Old Course at St. Andrews will fly a Pinehurst No. 2 pin flag on the 18th hole on Monday after the Ryder Cup is decided.
  • If Team Europe wins, Pinehurst No. 2 will fly an Old Course 18th hole flag on its 18th for that Monday.

Two years ago, we admit, we watched with pride as 2014 U.S. Open Champion Martin Kaymer was one of Europe’s best players.

Now though? Well, let’s just say there’s a little more on the line.

We’d love to see the Pinehurst No. 2 pin flag fly on the 18th hole of The Old Course for a day. Imagine the photos.

And of course, we’ll happily oblige in honoring our end of the bet should the Americans fall short, and fly The Old Course flag on 18 of No. 2.

But we all know that won’t happen, right?

Right?

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Remembering Arnold Palmer at Pinehurst

The great Arnold Palmer has passed away at 87. We take a moment to reflect on The King’s grand legacy at Pinehurst

BY LEE PACE

Doris Palmer was fraught with anxiety. It was the 1954 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit, and her 25-year-old-son, Arnold, was about to make a serious mistake. She approached Richard Tufts, the president of Pinehurst Inc. and USGA secretary, with her concerns.

“Oh, Mr. Tufts, I’m worried to death,” Mrs. Palmer said. “I’m afraid Arnold’s going to turn pro after this.”

“With that swing of his, he’ll never make it on tour.” Richard Tufts

Tufts’ primary frame of reference for young Palmer’s golf ability was the North and South Amateur, the tournament the Tufts family ran each spring on Pinehurst No. 2. Palmer never played particularly well in that event, losing by a monster score like 12-and-11 to Frank Stranahan in 1949.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs. Palmer,” Tufts replied. “With that swing of his, he’ll never make it on tour.”

Palmer won the Amateur that week, did in fact turn professional and proceeded to make hash of his critics. Palmer and Tufts were reunited 14 years later in Charlotte, when Palmer spoke on Tufts’ behalf at the latter’s induction ceremony into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. They shared a laugh over Tufts’ gaffe.

… Continue Reading

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The 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst

The victorious American Ryder Cup team in 1951 at Pinehurst.

The victorious American Ryder Cup team in 1951 at Pinehurst.

The 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst didn’t have a lot of drama. That didn’t stop Skip Alexander’s hands from bleeding

BY ALEX PODLOGAR
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE TUFTS ARCHIVES

 

LOOK CLOSELY AT THE BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTOS in the hall of the Pinehurst Resort Clubhouse. The ones aged by time and history. The winning United States team at the 1951 Ryder Cup played on Pinehurst No. 2 stands together, smiles wide on their faces and nattily attired in light suits befitting the American South culture.

Captained by Sam Snead and led by Ben Hogan, the U.S. team had little trouble with their counterparts from Britain. The Americans won handily 9 ½-2 1/2, as The Wardrobe, Jimmy Demaret, capped perhaps the greatest Ryder Cup career in the game’s long history.

Wedged between Snead and Hogan is Skip Alexander, a rising star on the fledgling PGA Tour and a former All-American from nearby Duke University. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Alexander can’t be missed, his hair slicked back in the fashion of the day, his glasses crystal clear.

Hidden, though, are Alexander’s hands.

Skip Alexander with his wife Kitty and daughter Carol Ann.

“It was a whole new life.”

SKIP ALEXANDER HAD BEEN TO PINEHURST before. He won the prestigious North and South Amateur in 1941 in the midst of a collegiate career that led to his enshrinement in the Duke Hall of Fame. He won twice on the PGA Tour in 1948, finishing fifth on the money list with $18,000 in earnings. Alexander had no trouble making the 1949 Ryder Cup team.

None of it was easy, though. Especially with a young family in tow.

The Civil Air Patrol offered Alexander a lift. It was the kind of break only a star would get.

“In ’49 I restructured my life and it was kind of tough traveling,” Alexander told members of the St. Petersburg Country Club many years later. “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 long hops (by car), for instance, from Tucson to San Antonio, Texas. 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 10 to even stay out on the tour. We (tour players) were just a group of vagabonds traveling together. We were a close-knit group (of 75-85 players) cuttin’ up the same pie every week.”

Nearly through the 1950 season, Alexander continued to keep pace with the game’s greats. Snead. Hogan. Byron Nelson. Cary Middlecoff. All winners on Pinehurst No. 2 somewhere along the line. Alexander was in elite company, and after finishing sixth at the Kansas City Open in late September, he was eighth on the money list.

Alexander, though, was ready for a break. An exhibition trip to South America was looming. But he needed to see his young family, which had stayed home this time, in North Carolina. The Civil Air Patrol, with three officers ready to take off from Kansas City to Louisville, offered Alexander a lift. The date was Sept. 24, 1950.

It was the kind of break only a star would get.

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“We almost made it.”

NEARING EVANSVILLE, INDIANA, the small plane’s reserve fuel tank malfunctioned. This was fatal. The plane was going down.

“Since we were near the Evansville airport, we banked in to land and almost made it, crashing on the edge of the field,” Alexander told the St. Petersburg Evening Independent’s John Steen on Jan. 16, 1951. “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.”

His flesh melting from the fire, Alexander raced those 50 yards in about 20 seconds before the plane disintegrated.

He was the only one who made it out of the plane, the three CAP officers killed. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

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“(Doctors) took a knuckle out and fused the (remaining) two knuckles together so they would fit a golf club.”

ALEXANDER SPENT THE NEXT FIVE MONTHS in hospitals before finally being released from Duke University Hospital on Feb. 28, 1951. In all, he would endure 17 surgeries as a result of the crash.

On the day he was released, Alexander accepted the head golf professional position at Lakewood Country Club in Florida, his residence. His career thought over, Wilson Sporting Goods renewed his sponsorship contract as a Christmas gift. Nelson, Middlecoff, Clay Heafner and Orville Wright organized a golf match to benefit the Carolinas’ PGA Skip Alexander $10,000 Fund.

But to Alexander, he wasn’t done. His 726 points toward the ’51 Ryder Cup team had a chance to hold up.

But to Alexander, he wasn’t done. His 726 points toward the ’51 Ryder Cup team had a chance to hold up.

“Only his deep blue eyes were the same when he emerged,” wrote The St. Petersburg Times Sports Editor Bill Beck. “They appeared in usual quizzical, friendly fashion from a scar-tissue face that would have put a lesser man on a psychiatrist’s couch. His hands were twisted so that his fingers stuck out at odd angles like the scarecrow’s in the Wizard of Oz. But he served notice on the golfing world that he would take up the tournament trail again after a Winter’s rest.”

But to play, Alexander needed those fingers fixed. The doctors complied.

“My hands were all burned and (now) they’re all skin-grafted,” Alexander recalled to the country club. “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.”

Months of rehabilitation still awaited him. But Alexander pressed on. He wanted to play again.

“I was a little fire running away from a big fire,” Alexander told Beck of the crash.

1951 Ryder Cup

“Yes, I can play.”

THE NINTH PLAYING OF THE RYDER CUP 65 YEARS AGO was vastly different than the intense worldwide multimedia event it is today. In early November of 1951, only 30 correspondents, including just three from London and three from Scotland, descended on Pinehurst. There were estimates of a mere 6,000 spectators for Sunday’s singles matches, and even as the Cup was being contested, visiting golfers continued to play on Pinehurst courses No. 1 and 3, and on nine holes of No. 4.

It was high season for Pinehurst, and Pinehurst owner Richard Tufts found himself in the unenviable position of being forced to turn away nearly 600 potential guests. But Pinehurst No. 2, which had been closed for three months in preparation for hosting the Ryder Cup, was ready for the game’s greatest, according to famed British golf correspondent Henry Longhurst.

“It was cold and (Dutch) Harrison got sick and Snead came to me and said, ‘Can you play?’” -Skip Alexander

“With the grass about three inches thick on the fairways and the ground untrodden for three months, at 7,007 yards on the card and playing more like 9,000, it was murder — brassies, brassies all the way, as the poet might have said — and it was not long before my partner and I agreed upon it as an admirable battlefield for the Sneads and Mangrums of this world but no fit stomping ground for aging investment brokers and golf correspondents.”

Fourteen months removed from a horrifying plane crash, and just eight months since finally being released from the hospital, it was unclear whether Alexander was ready for such a world class competition. He had played a smattering of tournaments leading up to the Ryder Cup to secure his position on the team, but Alexander was one of two players on the 10-man U.S. squad held out of play during Friday’s team matches.

On Saturday, the teams took a break in play, with many of them instead traveling to Chapel Hill to watch a football game between Tennessee and North Carolina.

“They said, ‘In North Carolina when Carolina plays Tennessee in a football game on Saturday, nobody watches golf,’” Alexander recalled decades later. “So they took the day off and we all went to the football game.”

Tennessee won 27-0, but the Tar Heels weren’t the only casualty.

“It was cold and (Dutch) Harrison got sick and Snead came to me and said, ‘Can you play?’” Alexander said. “I told him, ‘Yes, I can play.’”

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Skip Alexander, at left, stands with Ben Hogan (center) and Jackie Burke during the 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst.

“My hands were bleeding.”

THE AMERICANS ENTERED SUNDAY’S singles matches with a 3-1 lead following Friday’s play. Still, the Cup would be decided with the 36-hole singles matches, and Snead had to tread carefully. He still needed 3 ½ points for the U.S. to retain the Cup, and the Americans had not lost it since 1933.

Perhaps protecting Alexander or maybe to get into his opponent’s head, Snead paired Alexander against Britain’s top player, John Panton, who had topped the Order of Merit and won the Vardon Trophy. Panton, a member of three Ryder Cup teams, would finish his career with 38 professional victories. Years later, like the “Arnold Palmer,” Panton had a beverage named after him. The mix of non-alcoholic ginger beer and a dash of lime cordial was named the “John Panton.”

“I don’t know whether Snead knew that I was going to play … and (Sam) was just forfeiting the match or leading the lambs to the slaughter.” -Skip Alexander

All things considered, Alexander didn’t see the logic in the matchup.

“I don’t know whether Snead knew that I was going to play … and (Sam) was just forfeiting the match or leading the lambs to the slaughter,” Alexander told the St. Petersburg Country Club. “But having to play their No. 1 man, I wouldn’t have been the choice. I’d have had Hogan play him.”

Alexander didn’t know whether he could even finish 36 holes. He had never played a 36-hole match before.

It turned out he didn’t have to.

His hands bleeding throughout the match, Alexander pulled off one of the most unlikely upsets in the playing of the Ryder Cup. Beating Panton 8 & 7, Alexander helped the Americans clinch the Cup with the most lopsided match in the event’s history to that point.

Even Alexander couldn’t believe it.

“I was all bandaged up; my hands were bleeding,” he told the country club. “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 & 7, which as I heard, was the biggest margin that anybody had won by. … I three-putted No. 10 though, in that afternoon round, or I might have won 9 & 8. I remember wondering if that was the beginning of the end and I wouldn’t win another hole.”

He was right. Alexander never won again.

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Skip Alexander (left) with Clayton Heafner.

“Borrowed courage”

LAUDED THROUGH MUCH OF THE NEXT YEAR, Alexander was honored in January by Philadelphia sportswriters as the “Most Courageous Athlete” of 1951.

The Associated Press covered the event:

“His face lined with scars and his fingers, which once controlled some of golf’s best shotmaking, still bent and bruised, Alexander told some 1,300 diners that he owed part of his recovery to letters and telegrams of encouragement from people all over the nation. ‘It was sort of borrowed courage,’ he said.”

Alexander went on.

“Skip smiles under that new ear and eye lid and refuses to consider anything but an ever-brightening future.” – Oscar Fraley, AP Columnist

“It was undoubtedly my sporting instinct, that natural effort to win against all odds, that helped carry me through my recent trying days,” he told the audience. “My faith in the doctors and the unflinching encouragement of my wife, plus the thought of our 2-year-old daughter, carried me past many discouraging moments.”

Still he expected more in golf. Alexander envisioned a return to the Tour, but soon found he could no longer compete regularly at the highest level.

“I played in a couple of Masters, but didn’t have any success playing on the Tour after the accident,” he said.

Alexander never left golf. He settled in at Lakewood, now known as the St. Petersburg Country Club, where he served as the head golf professional for 34 years — the job he was given as he rose from his Duke University Hospital bed for the last time. In addition to the Duke Hall of Fame, Alexander has been enshrined in the North Carolina Hall of Fame and the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame. Alexander’s son Buddy won the U.S. Amateur in 1986 and eventually became the head golf coach at the University of Florida, leading the Gators to two national championships.

Skip Alexander passed away in 1997, leaving behind a legacy in golf – and the Ryder Cup – few can match.

Associated Press columnist Oscar Fraley couldn’t have been more prescient on March 4, 1952, when he wrote, “Skip smiles under that new ear and eye lid and refuses to consider anything but an ever-brightening future.”

In a frame on the wall of Pinehurst’s historic clubhouse, the smile never fades.

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