Alexander tandem extends family legacy
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Buddy Alexander has raised his son to be self-sufficient. It’s the way Buddy was brought up by his father. Golf, the lifeblood that runs through the Alexander family, always was an option but never a requirement.
“He knows that when you push things on kids, sometimes that turns them away,” said Tyson Alexander, a senior on the University of Florida men’s team, about his father.
Buddy, in his 23rd season as the Gators’ head coach, is doing his best to soak in Tyson’s final season in Gainesville. He says it has been a blessing to be father and coach.
“(Tyson has) always been mature enough to know which hat I’m wearing,” Buddy said.
Buddy never received a golf lesson from his father, though Skip Alexander taught for 33 years as the head pro at Lakewood Country Club in St. Petersburg, Fla. Before raising his family in a house adjacent to Lakewood’s eighth tee, Skip played on the PGA Tour in the mid-1940s, won twice in 1948 and again in ’50, and finished 11th at the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera.
But a serious accident derailed a promising career.
In September 1950, Skip, then 32, was aboard a civil aircraft that crashed in Evansville, Ind. With the plane in flames, Skip kicked open a door and escaped alive. Three others aboard died. Skip had severe burns on 75 percent of his body and endured nearly 20 operations in the following months. Told that the knuckles on his hands would need to be permanently frozen, Skip asked doctors to fit his fingers around a golf club so he could continue to play the game.
“He played for Wilson back then,” Buddy said. “And they made up a miniature 5-iron to take into surgery.”
With rebuilt hands, Skip returned a year later and helped the U.S. win the 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst No. 2, posting an 8-and-7 singles victory over John Panton despite his bleeding fingers.
“His fingers were melted together. He could hardly grip the club,” said Jack Burke Jr., a teammate on the ’51 U.S. team. “He would play through anything.”
Skip retired soon after, joined Lakewood as its head professional and started a family.
Buddy quickly became a talented junior golfer, winning a handful of state events as a teenager. Though a strict disciplinarian, Skip never demanded that his son succeed.
“It was not like today, where parents hang all over their kids,” Buddy said. “He had his own life. He was there at the dinner table every night. But it wasn’t like he was taking me to the golf course once a week.”
Buddy recalls reaching the semifinals of the Lakewood Club Championship as a ninth-grader, eventually losing to a former captain of the UF golf team, 1 up.
“It was the first time I could remember him saying he was proud of me,” Buddy said of his dad.
Their bond strengthened over the next few years. Buddy was a two-time All-American at Georgia Southern in the mid-1970s, then won the ’86 U.S. Amateur and represented the U.S. at the ’87 Walker Cup. He took over as Florida’s coach in January ’88, and Tyson was born that summer.
Like his father, Buddy let his son find his own way into golf. Tyson recalls getting a lesson as an 8-year-old from Skip, the pair practicing 50-yard chips for about 30 minutes.
“I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world,” Tyson said. “In hindsight, he was doing good for me.”
Skip died of heart complications in 1997 at age 79. The day before he died, he shot 86 at Lakewood.
“He always appreciated being able to play golf every chance he got,” said his widow, Kitty, 83. “Skip wouldn’t have been happy doing anything else in his life.”
As Tyson grew up, he excelled in sports. It wasn’t until ninth grade that he really took to golf. His parents divorced more than a decade ago, but his mother, Jane, whom Tyson calls “his biggest supporter,” rarely missed a tournament and took him to the course daily.
To his – and Buddy’s – surprise, Tyson qualified for the 2004 U.S. Amateur as a 16-year-old. Buddy offered to caddie. It turned out to be a week that would shape Tyson’s decision to play for his father at Florida.
During the second round of stroke play at Winged Foot, Tyson was near the cut line as he made the turn, but started his final nine holes bogey-double bogey. He reached the par-3 third – his 12th hole – needing a rally to advance to match play.
Tyson and Buddy stood on the tee box debating which club to hit. Tyson wanted the 4-iron. Buddy liked the 5-iron. Finally, the pair settled on the 5. When Tyson’s ball found a front bunker, all hell broke loose.
“He’s running a little hot,” Buddy recalled, “and he mutters under his breath, ‘Nice club.’ And I said, ‘You hit that fat. That was the correct club. If you can’t be accountable, then I’m not going to caddie. Do you want me to put the bag down?’ ”
“At the time I was a little heated, so I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Tyson remembered. “He dropped the bag, handed me the yardage book and walked off.”
Tyson finished the round carrying his own bag. Buddy watched from a safe distance. Tyson failed to qualify for match play. After the round, father and son hugged and apologized. Tyson knew that as a coach, Buddy was trying to help. As a father, Buddy wanted Tyson to learn a lesson in respect without leaving things on bad terms.
“That’s when I knew it was going to work in college,” Buddy said.
So when it came time for Tyson to select a school, he wanted to be a Gator. After all, he had been to practices and tournaments, and understood his father’s coaching style.
In the team’s first meeting during Tyson’s freshman year, he called his father ‘Coach.’ Said Buddy: “We thought that was really weird. He’s called me ‘Dad’ ever since.”
Tyson says Buddy has never shown favoritism toward him. When players have to qualify for tournaments, Buddy has gone out of his way to tell Tyson that his spot isn’t a lock.
“It actually motivates me more so I don’t have to put my dad in that situation of picking between me and someone else,” Tyson said.
In Buddy’s tenure, only three players have left Gainesville without an SEC title ring. Tyson and fellow senior Tim McKenney don’t want to be added to the list. The Gators, No. 3 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, closed the fall with a runner-up finish in an elite field at the Isleworth Collegiate. Tyson tied for seventh, giving him two top 20s in three fall events.
Tyson, ranked No. 58 individually, said he’s not sure yet if a career in pro golf awaits after graduation. He doesn’t rule out coaching, either. One thing is for sure: Buddy will be along for the ride.
“He’s always going to be my golf coach,” Tyson said.