Women's Golf's Greatest Forgotten Champion

Women’s golf hardly began with the founding of the LPGA. In the 1500s, Mary Queen of Scots, known for her red hair and fierce disposition, kept a summer cottage in St Andrews and was such an avid player that she was dubbed “The Mother of Golf.” She is credited with inventing the word “caddie,” which was a carryover from the French “cadét,” young military trainees who carried her highness’s clubs as she was learning the game.

Three and a half centuries later, another redheaded firecracker became America’s most famous sportswomen. Unfortunately, much like the Mary Queen of Scots, her history in golf is largely forgotten.

Alexa Stirling was the middle of three daughters of an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor from Edinburgh, Scotland who immigrated to Atlanta, Georgia in the late 1800s. Like a lot of upper-class Atlantans at that time, the Stirlings escaped the coal-fired industrial smokestacks and wood-burning residential kitchens polluting the air of a city still rebuilding after being burned to the ground during the Civil War by moving to a resort community at the eastern end of the streetcar line. Dr. Alexander Stirling bought a modest white-brick bungalow adjacent to the Atlanta Athletic Club at East Lake where Alexa learned to play violin and piano and become a trained operatic soprano. She also learned to shoot all manner of firearms and would become an expert marksman. In an age and a place when Edwardian mores prohibited proper girls from venturing outdoors in anything less than ankle-length skirts or dresses, Alexa learned to build tables, chairs and beds from freshly planed lumber. She also rode horses, became an impressive fly fisherwoman, who crafted an artistic collection of flies, and, in her spare time, she grew up to become the greatest female golfer in the world.

Affable and precocious, Alexa fit right into the East Lake lifestyle with a boathouse, badminton, and a hunt club. She took up golf with several other kids, including a sickly runt, four years her junior, named Bobby Jones, whose parents had moved to East Lake in the hopes of keeping their anemic young son alive. “Little Bob” and Alexa fell under the tutelage of a crusty Scottish professional named Stewart Maiden, who was credited with being the model for Jones’ swing, but who considered Alexa his “special student,” one who absorbed information like a thick cotton towel. Maiden, who was rough as a dried corncob around most of his students, softened around Alexa, her wavy red hair tied in a ponytail and her smiling face littered with freckles. In a brogue he never lost and often enjoyed accentuating, Maiden often said, “If she’d only leave that damned fiddle bide awhile, she’d make a braw player.”

In the summer of 1908, Alexa, along with a sickly six-year-old Jones and two more children, Perry Adair, who would go on to win two Southern Amateur titles and be a teammate of Jones’ at Georgia Tech, and a local named Frank Meador, played a thrown-together tournament on a few of the high holes on East Lake’s north course. The prize was a small silver cup that Frank’s mother had bought. She owned the boarding house where Jones Father, R.P., a prominent attorney, had rented a couple of rooms (the home still stands just across Alston Drive from the second green at East Lake Golf Club). Mrs. Meador wanted to give the children some activity that didn’t involve firearms, catching snakes or have the potential for drowning.

At the end of play, however, scandal erupted. Everyone knew that Alexa had shot the lowest score. But Frank, who was the oldest child and thus put in charge of scorekeeping, couldn’t let a girl win. So, he jiggered the scorecard to give Little Bob a one-shot victory. “I’ll always believe that Alexa won that cup,” Jones wrote many years later. “I took it to bed with me that night. I’ve got 120 cups and vases and 30 medals, but there is one little cup that never fails of being well polished. And I never slept with another one.”

Alexa, on the other hand, learned a hard lesson, one she never forgot: life isn’t fair, especially when a girl beats the boys.

She also learned over time what a frightful fit some men can pitch when threatened by a confident woman. During one of their many rounds together, Jones hit a bad shot and let fly a torrent of vulgarities at the exact moment Dr. Stirling wandered out of his house and onto the course. The good doctor, who was the British consul general to Atlanta at that time, stuck an imposing figure with a bushy handlebar mustache, stiff white collar and homburg hat that made him look seven feet tall, especially to a kid. “Young man,” Dr. Stirling said, the Edinburgh accent thicker than normal, “haven’t you learned better than to use that kind of language around a lady?” Then, putting his arm around his daughter and escorting her off the course, he said to Jones, “She’ll not play with you again until you learn some proper manners.”

“Good,” Jones shot back. “A lot of good it does me to play with girls anyway. If I’m going to be a golfer, I’ve got to play with the men.”

Alexa would later say of Jones, “He was a handsome boy with a gentle, wry way of smiling, and, except for his bursts of temper on the course, his manners were impeccable.”

She and Bob did not play golf together for two years.

How much those incidents motivated her is lost to history. But in 1915, at the tender age of 17, Alexa became the youngest winner of the Women’s Southern Amateur, one of the nation’s most prestigious titles. A year later, and a month shy of her 19th birthday, she defeated Mildred Caverly at Belmont Springs Country Club in Massachusetts to win the United States Amateur Championship, becoming, as the banner headlines in the Atlanta newspapers screamed, the “First Southerner Ever To Win A Major Championship.” She was also, at age 18, America’s youngest-ever major champion.

Her father attempted to telegram her, but Western Union refused to deliver the message. Alexa’s nickname at home had started out as Lexie but had, over time, morphed in Sexie, or, sometimes simply, Sex. Telegrams were priced by the letter, so when Dr. Stirling sent a note that read, “Hurray for Sex!” the telegram company deemed it improper. That story was retold in Atlanta for years.

She loved her father dearly. While he wasn’t much of a golfer, Alexa would later say, “When Father gave me my own set of clubs, he said, ‘Alexa, play to win. But even more important than winning is your conduct on the course. Do not lose your temper at a poor shot. Do not sulk in defeat. Be gracious in victory.’”

She was all that and more. After 1915, the USGA suspended the U.S. Women’s Amateur as America joined Great Britain, France and others in World War I. During the war years, Alexa, Jones and Perry Adair toured the country as the Dixie Whiz Kids, playing exhibitions for the Red Cross. The trio raised more than $150,000, the equivalent of almost $4 million today.

Alexa also enlisted and became an ambulance driver for the Army Medical Corps. She reached the rank of lieutenant before the end of the war.

In 1919, she picked up where she left off on the course. A mature 21-year-old, Alexa won the U.S. Women’s Amateur for a second straight time. She became known as the pound-for-pound longest hitter in the game. At 110 pounds, her drives bounded well past the 250-yard mark with hickory-shafted clubs and out-of-round rubber balls many modern players couldn’t get off the ground.

Noted write O.B. Keeler wrote of her, “It has been the comment through the galleries, which have included many professionals and veteran golfers, that no such prodigious hitting ever has been done by a woman golfer in America.”

Then, in 1920, at Mayfield Country Club outside Cleveland, Ohio, Alexa defeated 113 other competitors to win her third consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur title, the first woman to do so since Beatrix Hoyt won the first three championships ever played from 1896 through 1898. One month later, Alexa solidified herself as the greatest golfer in the world by winning the Canadian Women’s Amateur.

At the time, she was the most famous female athlete and one of the most recognized celebrities in the world.

In 1921, she made it to the finals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur again, losing to Marion Hollins, the creator of Pasatiempo and Cypress Point Club and a 2020 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame.  Hollins had lost to Alexa in the second round of the 1919 Amateur.

Alexa won the Met Women’s Amateur in 1922 and 1923. Later that summer, she advanced to the finals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur again, this time losing to Edith Cummings, who was famously known as the “Fairway Flapper” and was the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character, Jordan Baker, in The Great Gatsby. In the process, Alexa defeated championship favorite Glenna Collett, who would later become Glenna Collett-Vare, the namesake of the Vare Trophy.

After that 1923 Amateur, Alexa traveled to Ottawa for the Canadian Women’s Open. There she met Dr. Wilbert Grieve Fraser. The two hit it off immediately. He fished and hunted and loved the outdoors. The two were married in a spectacular ceremony hosted by Atlanta Athletic Club in 1925. Alexa was 28.

They sailed to Europe on a month-long honeymoon, then returned to Ottawa where Alexa gave birth to a daughter, Sandra, in 1928. A son, Glen, came in 1933. Their third child, Richard, was born in 1939. While not reclusive, the Frasers didn’t travel much. Alexa was a member at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club where she won the ladies’ club championship 13 straight times as well as being a shooting and archery champion. She also belonged to the Ottawa Hunt Club where she hunted pheasants more often than she played golf.

Then, in 1950, a letter arrived at the Fraser residence. The handwriting was gnarled and halting. But the language was unmistakable. As Alexa would later say, Bob Jones had written, “The United States Golf Association was going to have a celebration of the golden anniversary of the Women’s Amateur Golf Championship and he very much wanted me to come to Atlanta to participate.”

She was stunned by what she found. The effects of syringomyelia, a debilitating and degenerative spinal disease, had crippled her childhood friend.

“Reporters and photographers met me at Atlanta’s Peachtree Station and told me that Bob was waiting at the top of the stairs,” Alexa later wrote. “The 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 though a steel band had clamped around my chest. On the retina of my memory was impressed the picture of a handsome young man in knickers swinging a golf club with tremendous power and grace. In tragic contrast, there stood before me a man slumped on two canes, a brace on his right leg, his face gray.”

Alexa did not return to Atlanta again until 1976 when the Atlanta Athletic Club hosted the U.S. Open. By then the club had abandoned the East Lake location for the northern suburbs of Atlanta, a town now known as John’s Creek. Jerry Pate, a rookie, won that championship with a spectacular 5-iron from the rough on the final hole, a shot most golf historians recall with clarity. But fewer remember the eloquent speech Alexa gave on what it meant to her and to the memory of Bob Jones to have championship golf return to their home club.

Not long after returning to Ottawa, Alexa was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died on April 15, 1977.

She was once again honored when she was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1978. The Fraser children were invited. But for the life of them, they couldn’t figure out why. Alexa’s daughter, Sandra, said, “We had no idea what our mother had done. We just assumed they were making a fuss because Southerners are hospitable.” When she realized all that her mother had accomplished, Sandra wept, saying that Alexa had never told them any of it. “We knew she played golf, but we had no idea,” she said.

Years later, LPGA Founder Patty Berg was asked to name the greatest champion in women’s golf. Most assumed that Berg would call out Babe Didrikson Zaharias or Mickey Wright or Kathy Whitworth. Instead, Berg said, “Alexa Stirling is the finest competitor and the finest lady the game has ever known.”

To date, the World Golf Hall of Fame has yet to recognize Alexa Stirling. The house she grew up in still stands and is owned by East Lake Golf Club and the East Lake Foundation.

This June, the Atlanta Athletic Club will welcome the greatest players in the women’s game for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.