Peggy Kirk Bell: A Women’s Golf Pioneer
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL – By and large, the decision to stage the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in back-to-back weeks at the Pinehurst No. 2 course here has received rave reviews. One dissenter, at least initially, was Peggy Kirk Bell, who has owned and nurtured the nearby Pine Needles resort since 1953.
“The USGA called me the night before they made the announcement that both events were going to No. 2,” Bell said Monday, when I found her eating lunch with friends at the Pine Needles Lodge. “I was furious.”
She had reason to be disappointed. Pine Needles had hosted the three most recent Women’s Opens in North Carolina. Annika Sorenstam won there in 1996, Karrie Webb in 2001 and Cristie Kerr in 2007. Pine Needles, like Pinehurst No. 2, has a cherished and well-preserved Donald Ross-designed course. Bell contends it was Ross’s favorite.
But Bell, a twinkly-eyed 92-year-old, isn’t the type to stay mad for long. “Oh well,” she laughed. “It will be fun to see what the women do with No. 2 after the men have had their chance.” She said she expected to watch the action every day, from a privileged spot on the veranda overlooking the 18th green and on the course.
Bell isn’t a Southerner by birth—she grew up in Findlay, Ohio, the daughter of a prosperous wholesale grocer—but over the last 60 years she has come to epitomize the hospitality and golf-centeredness of this very Southern golf resort community, particularly when it comes to female golfers. “She’s a pistol,” said Kerr, who Monday night hosted a wine-tasting at Pine Needles, with Bell holding court. “She is so solid and inspiring and has done so much for women’s golf.”
On Tuesday about a dozen former Women’s Open champions played a round at Pine Needles, with Bell viewing some of the action from her cart. The previous week Lucy Li, the pig-tailed 11-year-old charmer from Northern California who is the youngest ever to qualify for a U.S. Open, practiced at Pine Needles and had lunch with Bell several times.
“She’s phenomenal. She didn’t miss a shot,” Bell said. “I told her she had the skill to win here this week.” That is not going to happen but the generation-spanning marvel of their friendship is a pleasure to ponder: A woman who took lessons from Tommy Armour, the 1927 U.S. Open champ and an influential early instructor, encouraging a girl who, when she is 24, might well be a contender for the 2027 Women’s Open.
Bell was one of the early members of the LPGA. The legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias was one of her best friends and is the godmother of her eldest daughter. In the LPGA’s early barnstorming years, she flew a small, single-prop plane from event to event, about the time Arnold Palmer was starting to do the same thing on the men’s tour. One of the stories you might be lucky enough to hear Bell tell, if you catch her around the lodge at Pine Needles, is how she was forced during a snowstorm in 1959 to make an emergency landing in a farmer’s field and swore never to pilot again. She used the proceeds from the sale of the plane to pay for the pool at the lodge.
Despite a sterling amateur career—she won three consecutive Ohio amateurs and was a member of the 1950 U.S. Curtis Cup team—Bell never won on the LPGA Tour. By the 1960s she had turned most of her attention to teaching golf, her family and building up Pine Needles, which she and her husband, Warren “Bullet” Bell (a former professional basketball player), had purchased for $50,000 in 1953.
In her prime, Bell was always recognized as one of the country’s top instructors. She taught both men and women, but was most renowned for the “Golfaris” for women she started in the 1960s and which continue today. These are essentially weeklong golf schools, but with a relaxed, supportive and enthusiastic social attitude that set them apart from anything else. For decades the Golfaris routinely maxed out at 150 golfers per session—in many cases a majority of them repeat customers.
“Over the years, Peggy gained a unique reputation across golf for bringing people and women in particular into the game very successfully. They didn’t just improve and learn to play, but they stayed with it,” said Judy Rankin, the 26-time LPGA winner and NBC/Golf Channel analyst. Afterward many of the attendees traveled regularly to play at each others’ home courses and formed friendships for life.
In 1994, Bell and her actively involved children acquired the Mid Pines resort across the street, with its own Ross gem that was recently restored in much the way Pinehurst No. 2 was, with wire-grass native areas and superfast contoured greens. The Pinehurst Resort, now with nine courses, gets most of the glory in the North Carolina sand hills, but the homey, boutique charm of Pine Needles and Mid Pines is hard to beat.
“There are an awful lot of players, and you can count me among them, who would love to leave a place like Pine Needles as their legacy,” Rankin said.
—Email John Paul Newport at email@example.com