This is Their Time

Alexa Stirling’s 1950 meeting with Bobby Jones reunited two childhood friends and reintroduced the golf world to one of its greatest players
alexa stirling header

The USGA was going big. Officials wanted to put on a memorable celebration at the 1950 U.S. Women’s Amateur—the event’s 50th anniversary. They had already secured the attendance of the game’s greatest amateur, Bobby Jones. But one more name was missing. By then, Alexa Stirling’s star had faded, but there was a time when her name was nearly on equal footing with Jones’.

Back in 1915, at just 17 years old, Stirling became the youngest winner of the Women’s Southern Amateur, one of the nation’s most prestigious titles. A year later, she won her first U.S. Women’s Amateur, arguably the biggest event in women’s golf. Banner headlines in her native Atlanta extolled the “First Southerner Ever to Win a Major Championship.” World War I forced the cancellation of the 1917 and 1918 Women’s Amateurs, so Stirling, along with Jones—the two had grown up playing together at East Lake Country Club—barnstormed across the country, playing in exhibitions and raising money for the war effort. When the event resumed in 1919, Stirling proceeded to win it—and the following one. At that point she was considered by many to be the finest women’s player on the planet.

She kept racking up titles until the mid-1920s, when she met a doctor at the Canadian Women’s Open. They got married and Stirling happily put aside her traveling career to settle in Ottawa and start a family. In early 1950, a letter arrived at her house. The handwriting was crooked but clear: Her old childhood friend Bobby was inviting her to join him at their beloved Atlanta Athletic Club and accept an exemption to play. Stirling was long past her competitive career, but she knew she couldn’t refuse. —The Golfer’s Journal

As Alexa made her way to Atlanta from Canada, her thoughts were flooding back to the grand old days at East Lake. She pictured the uncommonly handsome, robust Bob Jones taking a healthy cut at a ball with his hickory-shafted driver dubbed “Jeanie Deans.” Alexa had enthusiastically followed Jones’ triumphs, culminating in his Grand Slam. She knew he had retired at the top and made the Warner Brothers films on “How I Play Golf.” She had read some of his books and was aware of his Augusta National dream course and the Masters tournament. Jones’ Hollywood photo with his Palm Beach tan was a vivid memory.

Of course, she could expect that since Bob was 48 years old now, he probably had a little gray hair and was likely a little heavier. He always was a little on the pudgy side anyway. But he’d no doubt have that illuminating smile, bronzed face and youthful spring in his step—you know, the way he triumphantly marched after his ball on the course. Why, he’d probably hurry up to her and she’d recognize him right away, even after all these years. He’d likely become more handsome and dignified with age. She had no doubts he was playing good golf and his life was a peach.

Alexa Stirling This is Their Time

In truth, quite the opposite had occurred. For two years, Jones had experienced severe, continued suffering with throbbing pain in his arms and legs. Two surgeries did little to curb it. Bob relied first on one cane to prop himself up. Then he required two. These were followed by metal leg braces that made him shuffle along in an awkward lurching motion. 

He hired a chauffeur, George Hoyt, to take him to his office each day. George had to lift him out of the car and into a wheelchair for the trip up to the fourth-floor office. He was then placed on a pad on his chair. His hands had become clumsy enough that he could sign letters only by holding a pen taped to a tennis ball by his secretary. Physically, he was a shell of his former magnificent self. Essentially, all he had left was his superb intellect, which had been mercifully spared.

When she arrived in Atlanta, Alexa had no clue about any of this. Despite his ailments, Jones courageously told George that he would drive to the station to pick up Alexa by himself. He struggled behind the wheel and girded himself up to endure the awful pain caused by shifting his feet on the pedals and changing the gears of the standard transmission. Through the Atlanta rush-hour traffic, Jones drove with his pal, Atlanta sportswriter Ed Miles. 

When they arrived at Peachtree Station, Miles descended the steps to greet Alexa and escort her to the car. Jones could not make it down the stairs and waited anxiously at the top. His heart was no doubt skipping a few beats in anticipation of seeing his childhood friend.

It was not the scene Alexa expected: “Reporters and photographers met me at Atlanta’s Peachtree Station and told me that Bob was waiting at the top of the stairs,” she later said. “This news came as a shock. He really couldn’t walk downstairs! Until this moment, I hadn’t quite believed it. Halfway up the stairs I saw him, and I felt as if a steel band had suddenly clamped around my chest.”

At the top of the stairs, Alexa looked into the blue eyes of a gray-faced man slumped on two canes, with a metal brace on his right leg. He still mustered the crease of his famous warm smile. Miles described the reunion: “The red-haired mother of three and a man still young who walks with a cane Thursday met for the first time in 25 years and kissed like brother and sister.”

Alexa remembered, “He didn’t walk; he dragged his feet along without being able to lift them, his face set against the pain each movement cost him.”

Until this moment, I hadn’t quite believed it. Halfway up the stairs I saw [Jones], and I felt as if a steel band had suddenly clamped around my chest.

Alexa Stirling

Over the next few days, Bob and Alexa got reacquainted. Jones had never previously discussed his dire physical circumstances with anyone except sportswriter Al Laney. He told Laney he was never going to get better; it would only worsen. And then Jones told Laney never to talk about it again, saying, “You have to play the ball where it lies.”

The conversation with Alexa eventually arrived at Bob’s circumstances. Jones laughed whimsically and told her, “One morning a few weeks ago, I woke up without remembering my condition, and I stepped out of bed to walk to the bathroom. I fell flat on my face, of course. I lay on that floor and beat it with my fists and cursed at the top of my voice. For 10 minutes nobody dared come near me. I would have bitten them. I still can’t accept this thing. I fight it every day. When it first happened to me I was pretty bitter, and there were times when I didn’t want to go on living. But I did go on living, so I had to face the problem of how I was to live. I decided that I’d just do the very best I could.”

During the championship, Jones established his throne beside the 12th tee to watch the groups come through. He was an inspiration to all, including a 52-year-old sentimental favorite.

In her first round, against Betty MacKinnon, Alexa showed off her famous swing, but she was more interested in enjoying the event than chasing another title. Sportswriter Edwin Pope chronicled Alexa’s exit from the matches. The article, titled “Stirling Bows Out in Great Gesture,” stated, “Two trim and gracious ladies, Betty MacKinnon and Mrs. W.G. Fraser [Stirling’s married name], were intent upon short putts on the 18th green.

“Betty, out of Dallas, had batted her way up that 203-yard windup in two strokes. Hole-out on her 4-footer would admit her to the second round of the Golden Anniversary Women’s National Amateur Tournament, for Mrs. Fraser already had used three swats. Yet the Ottawa lady had a chance to halve the hole if Betty missed that putt and she, Mrs. Fraser, hit the bucket with her 7-footer. A bare chance, but a chance. The years went by in an instant for Mrs. Fraser. She leaned over, picked up her ball and held out her hand to Miss MacKinnon.

“Betty smiled and looked at Patty Berg, the unforgettable little pro standing nearby, and said with one glance what Patty put into bubbling words: ‘Alexa Stirling is the greatest competitor—the finest lady—the game has ever known.’”

As Alexa walked back to the clubhouse with Berg to sit with Jones, she explained, “I had my time, Patty. This is their time.”

Alexa Stirling This is Their Time
Stirling at the Atlanta Athletic Club

Throughout her retirement, Alexa successfully avoided the limelight. Her daughter, Sandra, later said, “She hid her light under a bushel.” Like Bob Jones, she “never took herself or her accomplishments so seriously that she stuffed her shirt with them.” Sandra and her two brothers saw the silver plates, pitchers and salvors on the mantel at home, but their mother never bragged about them. When Alexa went to play in the 1934 Canadian Women’s Open Amateur, 6-year-old Sandra’s only concern was that “poor Mommy has to wear a dress!” Around the house, Alexa usually preferred slacks. She had a practical reason: “We could do much better in knickerbockers,” she once wrote while discussing styles on the course. “The skirt is a big handicap in putting, especially on windy days where it may often hide the ball just as you go to hit it.”

Alexa’s kids began to realize their mother’s contributions when she was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1978. Alexa was also elected into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame on Jan. 14, 1989. Sandra described the emotional magnitude of it: “To us, she was just our mother. Everybody revered her and respected her and I never could figure out why. She just never talked about it. Ever. I honestly never knew the scope of her accomplishments until…a good year after she died. I had gone back with her when she was honored by the Atlanta Athletic Club at the 1976 U.S. Open and cut the ribbon for the opening of the Bobby Jones Room at the club. But I still didn’t realize how great she had been. Even though the USGA wined and dined us all week and everybody made such a fuss over her, I thought Southern people were just that way. Then, in 1978, I went to Atlanta to accept the State of Georgia Athletic Hall of Fame Award on her behalf, and it was then I realized what a great star she was. I was able to do a lot of digging and a lot of reading, and I talked to a lot of people who knew her then. We were, and continue to be, astounded at how she was revered, especially in the South. Imagine that, not knowing such a thing. I really regret that we weren’t aware of it and weren’t able to enjoy it with her or be immensely proud of it with her. Looking back, I think that’s just awful. And it makes me cry every time I read [about] it.”

But that was what their mother wanted. It was enough that she loved her family and they loved her. She, like Jones, believed that it’s not what you do that counts most, but who you are. Alexa knew who she was without the need to be constantly reminded. Jones made a point that always resonated with her: “Some of the so-called little people can be so great and some of these people with a reputation for being great can be pretty damned stinking.”

Alexa’s last visit to Atlanta was for the 1976 U.S. Open Championship, hosted by the Atlanta Athletic Club. She wrote a paragraph of reminiscences published in the Open program: “My earliest recollection of Bob Jones was when as a child of seven he was lying asleep in his bed recovering from an upset tummy. He was a rather spindly child with a head too large for his small body, but was even then the handsome person he later turned out to be. As time progressed we spent many fun-filled hours playing golf together. We had complete freedom to be on the course at any time with the exception of Sundays, at which time we would walk around and watch the better senior members. In this way we hoped to improve our own games. All our attempts were made under the watchful eye of Stewart Maiden who was our guide and mentor for years to come. It was with great gratification and admiration that I saw Bob grow to be the fine, broadminded, dignified gentleman he later proved to be.”

Shortly after her return home, lung cancer was discovered. Alexa passed away on Friday, April 15, 1977, at her home in Ottawa. She was buried in Pembroke, Canada. Eulogies poured in from all quarters of the golfing world.

Berg, by then a fellow LPGA Hall of Fame member, celebrated her heroine: “I only hope when I leave competitive golf, I can be like Alexa. I’ve never met a golfer or a woman that I’ve thought so much of. ”

Records aside, Alexa pulled an important laboring oar helping to usher into history a new and exciting era in women’s competitive golf. There was a day when men’s golf and women’s golf were separated by a gulf of preconceived notions of competitive capability. It was thought that the women couldn’t play anywhere near the golf that the men could. Alexa helped disprove that men had a monopoly on distance, accuracy and superb putting.

In her 1928 book, Ladies in the Rough, fellow women’s amateur star Glenna Collett-Vare touched on this: “Several reasons might be given for the marked improvement in women’s golf of late.…I don’t know if this changed style can be attributed to any one individual, but I do know that following the entrance of such players as Marion Hollins, Lillian Hyde (now Mrs. Feitner) and Alexa Stirling, women tried to get real distance off the tees.”

Alexa also had her own ideas about the reasons for progression in women’s golf. As early as 1923, she wrote, “Very noticeably and decidedly there has been an advance, even since 1914. When I first made an attempt in the National Championship, at the Nassau Country Club in 1914, there was, to my mind, a class of golf played which was infinitely inferior to that shown at the present time. 

“This, of course, I mean as a whole. There were then such outstanding players as the Curtis sisters, Mrs. H. Arnold Jackson, the still remarkable Mrs. Caleb Fox and others. But outside of these players the golf was comparatively poor. The enthusiasm was not there; and this was partly due to the lack of financial as well as moral backing by the men, which I am happy to say seems to have taken a turn for the better.

“Golf is, of course, very young in this country and all due credit must be given to those pioneers who were brave enough to start. It is interesting to note, however, that in a little over 20 years the number of entrants for the National Championships have increased from approximately 8 to 200.…Altogether, just from my more or less limited experience, I should say that golf for women in this country has increased 200 percent in popularity; that scores are from 5 to 8 strokes lower; and that the average additional distance for the different shots has increased from 30 to 50 yards. Whether this is due to the balls of recent years or even the clubs, the fact remains that women in this country are showing a steady and a very gratifying progress.”

I only hope when I leave competitive golf, I can be like Alexa. I’ve never met a golfer or a woman that I’ve thought so much of.

Patty Berg

In addition to her leadership, Alexa should always be remembered also for her compassion to her fellow competitors. She always lent a helping hand to even the most keen competitors. Rhonda Glenn remembered, “Alexa Stirling helped Glenna correct a fault of closing her clubface at the top of her swing, and the tip helped her overcome a tendency to drive wildly. She was a very long hitter, and at 18 [years old], at 5 feet 6 inches and weighing 128 pounds, she hit a tee shot of 307 yards, at that time the longest measured drive by a woman.”

Author Pam Emory also noted, “The night before the 1916 National Amateur final, [Alexa’s] opponent was bemoaning the fact that she was having trouble with her mashie shot. At Alexa’s urgency she and Mildred went out to the practice area. The next day Mildred Caverly came within one mashie shot of victory.”

As Alexa departed to Canada from Atlanta in 1950, the childhood memories were once again fresh. Her nickname among her parents and sisters back then was “Sexie,” or “Sex” for short. So it was that they attempted to send her a telegram celebrating her inaugural 1916 Women’s Amateur championship title. The telegram was never delivered because Western Union thought it was too racy to be put on the wire. It read, “HURRAH FOR SEX!” At Alexa’s final U.S. Women’s Amateur, a fresh crop of new fans received the message.