Two Decades Ago… Annika, Peggy Stole The Show

By Lee Pace

Annika Sorenstam & Peggy Kirk Bell, 1996 U.S. Women's OpenPeggy Kirk Bell thought she was making a joke in 1991 when Pine Needles hosted the U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur two years after having had the U.S. Girls’ Junior. During her remarks at the opening night dinner, the long-time Pine Needles owner said, “Well, we’ve had the senior ladies and we’ve had the young girls. Now if we could get the pros in here, we’d have it covered.”

USGA official Judy Bell (no relation) approached her afterward and asked, “Peggy, would you like to have a U.S. Open here?”

With that, the dominoes starting falling toward Pine Needles being named site of the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open. It was a memorable week in the Sandhills: Only two players broke par for 72 holes, with Annika Sorenstam winning in a six-shot rout with a 272 total, eight-under; an Open record at the time of 106,000 attendees converged on the Pine Needles campus; and parking, traffic flow and accommodations were manageable and sufficient.

Sorenstam’s triumph was apropos given her ties to Peggy Bell forged several years earlier. Sorenstam grew up in Stockholm but moved to the United States for college, playing at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s. She made the acquaintance at a tournament in Palm Springs of longtime University of Washington women’s golf coach Edean Ihlanfeldt, who had been friends for many years with Peggy. One year Edean called Peggy and asked if a young Swedish golfer could stay with Peggy while competing in the North and South Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst. Peggy said Annika was welcome to come.1996 U.S. Open, Annika Sorenstam

“I gave her a car, a room and told her to come and go as she pleased,” Peggy remembers. “She was quiet as a mouse. We had golf schools that week, so I was never able to go see her play, but they said she hit it long and straight. I know she was disappointed when she lost.”

Sorenstam finished at Arizona in 1992, began playing the LPGA Tour in 1993 and was Rookie of the Year the following season. In June 1995, she broke into the national spotlight by winning the Women’s Open at The Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs. Among the spectators that week were Peggy Bell and a party from Pine Needles, the site of the Open the next year.

“I hugged Annika after she won and said, ‘Now you can win it again at Pine Needles!’” Peggy says.

Sorenstam did exactly that.

“Winning at Pine Needles is very special to me,” Sorenstam said after the win. “I will never forget Peggy Bell and Pine Needles.”

1996 U.S. Women's Open Champion Annika SorenstamThe week flowed so smoothly and the golf course proved such an excellent test that the USGA accepted the Bells’ invitation to return for another Open. That 2001 engagement was announced before the last player had departed Pine Needles on Sunday afternoon.

“We decided it would be a good idea to come back here,” Judy Bell said. “This family and this community are passionate about golf. There is such a feeling for the game here. The people of this community and state embraced the event. That’s a key with us.”

Five years later, Karrie Webb posted a 273 total and won by eight shots. This time, approximately 100,000 fans attended (despite rainouts on Monday and Friday) and the next Women’s Open for 2007 had been awarded to Pine Needles by the time the last putt had dropped. Cristie Kerr posted a 279 total and claimed a two-shot win over Lorena Ochoa and 18-year-old Angela Park in 2007.

“We had one of the better championships in 1996 and here we are five years later with an even better experience,” said USGA official Kendra Graham. “They have raised the bar as far as everything that goes into hosting a championship.”

The recently completed greens resurfacing and bunker tweaking projects and the plans to add some tees in the near future will keep Pine Needles a key player as future championship venues are announced.

 

Holes #3, Pine Needles

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