When the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open Returns to Pine Needles this week, a pair of remarkable women will be on the mind of this writer.
Thirty-eight years ago this month, a forgotten golf legend changed my life.
Her name was Glenna Collett Vare, sometimes called the “Female Bobby Jones,” the dominant female player of the 1920s who won six U.S. Amateur Championships. The LPGA’s Vare trophy for the year’s lowest stroke average is named for her.
In 1984, having read in the newspaper that she was about to play in her 61st Point Judith Invitational, I showed up uninvited on the doorstep of her rambling shingled mansion overlooking Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, hoping she would allow me to caddie for her and write about it for Yankee Magazine.
I rapped politely on her screen door and was commanded by a firm voice to enter.
Stepping through the open screen door, I found a stocky woman in her early 80s standing atop a frighteningly tall stepladder, thumping an old wood-shafted spoon on the plastered ceiling.
She glanced down at me and asked, by way of introduction, “Young man, have you ever had raccoons in your rafters?”
I replied that this depended on whom you asked about the matter. She did not seem amused.
“Well I have one in mine. So here’s what I want you to do,” she said. “Come up here and keep tapping the ceiling until the critter man gets here.”
Dame Glenna came down and handed me the spoon, the equivalent of a modern 2-wood. I dutifully went up and tapped the roof as she disappeared into the house. The critter man never showed up. So after a while, I climbed down and went looking for the Female Bobby Jones.
I found her in the kitchen chopping up vegetables.
“Young man,” she said, “do you think you could possibly cut up these vegetables without losing a finger?” She explained that she was making soup for the local soup kitchen.
I assured her that I was an old hand at cutting up vegetables, still in possession of all 10 fingers. She handed me a knife and disappeared again.
A little while later, I found her sitting on her porch overlooking the sea, having a glass of iced tea. She invited me to sit down.
I introduced myself as the senior writer of Yankee Magazine who was hoping she might agree to let me caddie for her in the Point Judith Invitational.
Mrs. Vare sighed. “Oh, goodness, dear. Absolutely not! No one should have to witness my terrible golf game these days.”
I pressed the issue, pointing out that I was a serious student of the game who knew a great deal about her career, including her six U.S. Amateur titles. I also knew that nobody had written about the great Glenna Collett Vare in decades. A mutual friend from the USGA, in fact, informed me that she felt “largely forgotten” by the world of golf.
“How marvelous! Long before you were born, dear, I played some of my finest golf at Pine Needles! What a wonderful place. … That is my version of golf heaven. I assume you know Peggy Kirk Bell.” – Glenna Collett Vare
“Not a chance. So no more talk of it,” she snapped at me. Then she sighed and asked, “So tell me about you. Where do you come from?”
“North Carolina,” I said.
She almost smiled. “Indeed? From where exactly?”
Greensboro, I replied. Then added: “But I learned the game down in Southern Pines, at Pine Needles and Mid Pines.”
The change in her handsome old face was something to behold. The contours softened. Her gray eyes lit up. The smile was like morning sun breaking through the fog.
“How marvelous! Long before you were born, dear, I played some of my finest golf at Pine Needles! What a wonderful place. I even sold real estate there for a winter or two. That is my version of golf heaven. I assume you know Peggy Kirk Bell. She has done so much to promote women’s golf in this country.”
At that time, I’d never met Mrs. Bell. But my first round of golf on a championship course was played at her Mid Pines Resort in 1964, followed by Pine Needles a short time later.
“You never forget your first love – or golf course,” I joked.
That seemed to break the ice. And with that, we sat and talked for another hour – about her life, her children, her love of dogs and gardens and even the game of golf.
I finally screwed up my courage to ask for a final time if I could be her caddie.
She laughed. “Goodness, child. You don’t give up! But you can go with me to deliver the soup.”
So we delivered the soup in her great big Cadillac, with her small dog Jimmy riding in her lap. It was a terrifying ride. But I loved it.
We also became very good friends. Not long after the story I wrote about Dame Glenna – titled “Making Soup with a Legend” – appeared in Yankee, the editor of the USGA’s Golf Journal, Bob Sommers, called to invite me to write for his publication. Several magazines around the world picked up the Glenna soup story. Not long after that, Golf Magazine offered me a job writing profiles of PGA and LPGA players. One of the first stories I wrote for Golf was about the great Glenna Vare’s impact on bringing women to the game of golf.
Every spring before her passing in 1989, I visited with Glenna upon her return from Florida. We usually sat on her big porch overlooking the sea, catching up over lemonade or iced tea before we went to lunch. I always insisted on driving.
World Hall of Famer Peggy Kirk Bell had a good laugh when I told her this story over lunch at the Pine Needles Lodge back in 2001, a couple weeks before Aussie Karrie Webb captured the second U.S. Women’s Open staged on Pine Needles’ magnificent Donald Ross course. This was the second coming of the Women’s Open to Pine Needles. In 1996, Annika Sörenstam successfully defended her Open title there.
I was there to write a preview about the second U.S. Women’s Open to be hosted by Pine Needles and couldn’t help but marvel at the connective tissue of this ancient game – how these two remarkable women, born a generation apart, had such a monumental impact on the growth of golf in America. They also shared a love affair with Pine Needles, which Peggy and her late husband, Bullet Bell, purchased on a shoestring in 1955 and transformed into one of the most popular Open sites among modern LPGA players.
The year after I visited Peggy Kirk Bell in 2001, she became the first woman voted into the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame.
In 2007, Cristie Kerr gamely held off a field of rising young LPGA stars to capture Pine Needles’ third Women’s Open, a thrilling finish I covered for The Pilot. That one was made even more special because my teenage son, Jack, got to work as an assistant to iconic golf photographer Joann Dost, who is once again on the case for the “Open Daily” in 2022.
This fourth edition should really be something to see, featuring a brilliantly revised golf course by gifted designer Kyle Franz and an even stronger cast of gifted young players who weren’t even a twinkle in their mamas’ eyes when Dame Glenna and Ma Bell were busy growing women’s golf in America.
Whichever young gun comes out on top, wherever the Female Bobby Jones and the First Lady of Golf Teachers happen to be watching the action, I have a feeling both legends of the game – gone but never forgotten – will be very pleased.
Top photo: USGA Archives
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