SOUTHERN PINES, NORTH CAROLINA | It started in 1991 with the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, a terrific event at a Donald Ross gem cut out of the sandhills and pine forests between downtown Southern Pines and the village of Pinehurst. The Senior Women’s Amateur was the second USGA championship held at the family-owned club. Brandie Burton had won the U.S. Girls’ Junior there two years earlier. As with all USGA championships, officers and committee people were on site for both.
During that Senior Women’s Amateur, Judy Bell, who would later serve two years as USGA president, was standing outside the back patio near the rocking chairs at Pine Needles when she heard a familiar voice. “Hey, sis,” said Peggy Kirk Bell, the legendary player and owner of the course, as well as one across the street, Mid Pines, another Donald Ross masterpiece. The two women who shared a surname often joked that they were sisters, even though they weren’t related.
“We’ve had the young girls and some old broads,” said Peggy, who at the time was close to 70 years old. “When are we going to get some pros here?”
Judy Bell looked at her friend and said, “Peg, if you want the Open, you’ve got it. But look at the financials first.”
“The USGA faxed over the financials (on the U.S. Women’s Open) on that old thermal fax paper,” said Kelly Miller, today a top senior amateur and Peggy Kirk Bell’s son-in-law. “We saw that it lost a lot of money. But Peg said, ‘We’ve got to do it.’ So, we did and it’s been terrific ever since then.”
The 1996 U.S. Women’s Open introduced the world to Pine Needles and reminded a generation of the maverick woman who owned it. This week’s U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Pine Needles reminds them again.
“She was really something,” said Shirley Spork, one of only two remaining founders of the LPGA. “Peggy was a little ahead of me (Spork was born in 1927, Bell in 1921) but she wasn’t one of the founders of the LPGA. When her good friend Babe Zaharias became the second president of the LPGA, Peggy turned pro.”
Before that, she was a college golf coach and outstanding amateur. In fact, she and Spork first met when Bell (then Peggy Kirk) coached the Findlay (Ohio) Junior College team and took her squad on the road to play Bowling Green, where Spork was a golf instructor.
“We played a lot of amateur golf together,” Spork remembered. “She had kind of a loose backswing so the ball would occasionally squirt right. But she could really hit it. She was a good player who did a great deal to grow the game.
“You know she was a pilot, one of the first to fly her own plane.”
It was a Cessna 172 Taildragger. Bell barnstormed to and from events out of her hometown of Findlay for years – golf’s version of Amelia Earhart long before Arnold Palmer started flying himself to tournaments. But Bell also sold advertisements on her plane. Just below the tail number she had a large FootJoy ad. Right behind the doors on the fuselage she’d painted a large Spalding Dot ball.
In 1953, Peggy married Warren “Bullet” Bell, a former professional basketball player with the Fort Wayne Pistons. That same year, the newlyweds bought Pine Needles in partnership Frank and Maisie Cosgrove and the Cosgroves’ son-in-law, Julius Boros, who happened to be defending U.S. Open champion at the time. The course was terrific but not in great condition – a beautiful woman with a dirty face – and the old clubhouse had been sold to the local Catholic diocese and turned into a sanatorium. Just months after the purchase went through, the lease on the old army barracks that had been used as a makeshift motel ran out.
“They had one little building that they lived in and rented two rooms out,” Spork said. “To see them grow Pine Needles into what it became was really heartwarming.”
Bullet grew the business while Peggy flew around and played, often with Zaharias by her side. “She covered all the bases so well,” said former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem. “She was a great player but that was not her entire life. She married an incredible guy. She traveled and played with the Babe. And she managed to collect some pretty terrific golf courses and do very well with them. That’s a pretty rich and full life.
“There’s no doubt if you looked in the dictionary under ‘classy lady,’ you’d see Peggy’s picture,” Mechem said. “I mean if you think about the all-American girl, my goodness, she was beautiful; she was talented; she was a wonderful conversationalist: it’s hard to think of anything bad or even slightly negative about Peggy Kirk Bell.”
Everywhere you walk this week, there are old photos: Mrs. Bell and the Babe in swimsuits after a tournament round; Mrs. Bell climbing out of the cockpit of a Cessna; Mrs. Bell at the Memorial Tournament (as a member of Jack Nicklaus’ Captains Club); Mrs. Bell with her family.
Perhaps she was a bit too spunky at times. Like the incident that ended her days in the cockpit. According to Miller, “She was flying out of Findlay and got caught in a total whiteout. She was VFR (visually flight rated, which meant she was not approved to fly where she couldn’t see). So, she prayed: ‘Lord if you get me out of this storm, I’ll never fly this thing again.’ A minute later, miraculously, out of nowhere, a hole opened in the clouds. She dove the plane through the hole and landed in a field in Farmville, Va. It was snowing there. So, she got out, knocked on the door of the guy who owned the place, left the plane right there and never saw it again.
“They built the swimming pool (at Pine Needles) with the proceeds from selling the plane. She told that story a lot as she walked past the pool.
“Somebody tracked the tail number. The plane’s still around, somewhere in Germany now.”
Being grounded didn’t temper her love for speed. “One of the first experiences I had with her was to learn that she didn’t believe in speed limits,” Spork said. “We were going to give a golf clinic with Patty Berg and we were at the Tam O’ Shanter All-American Open in Chicago. But the clinic was at a course on the other side of the city, about an hour away. Peggy got behind the wheel and we made it in 32 minutes. My goodness, she loved to drive fast.”
“Once when she was traveling with (daughter) Bonnie, she’d been to McDonald’s and had wrappers all over the seat when she got pulled over for speeding,” Miller said. “The officer scolded her and wrote her a ticket. Peg was so mad that as she pulled out she spun her tires and threw gravel and dirt all over the policeman. So, he jumped in his car and pulled her over again. He didn’t write her up a second time but he read her the riot act.”
She also collected antique cars, which, coupled with her love for speed, led to some legendary tales.
“We had a (college-amateur) fundraiser during our Peggy Kirk Bell Invitational,” said Julie Garner, the director of golf and head women’s golf coach at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., Bell’s alma mater. “So our practice round was always a co-am tournament. Mrs. Bell would come play to help us raise money. We had one guy who was a Rollins graduate who was fairly well off who always wanted to play with her. We told him it was going to cost him but he was fine with that. Mrs. Bell asked, ‘Is he making it worth your while for me to play with him?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’ so she was all in.
“Well, during the round, he started complaining that he couldn’t sell his classic Cadillac convertible. She said, ‘Oh, that’s a nice car.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you’re into classic cars. You should take it.’ She said, ‘I can’t afford that car.’ She was incredibly generous with other people but wouldn’t spend money on herself. So by the end of the round, the guy had decided to give her the car.
“But that’s not all,” Garner said. “She had to drive from Winter Park to Palm Beach (182 miles) and then from there back to North Carolina. We were going to help her caravan the Cadillac up there. So, two hours and 10 minutes later she called me. I said, ‘Where are you?’ She said she was in Palm Beach. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘You got from (the Rollins campus) to Palm Beach in two hours and 10 minutes?’ She said, ‘I would have been here quicker but I stopped for ice cream.’ ”
As with everything, she was generous with the cars and with her home. During the North and South Women’s Amateur, she would always invite players to stay with her. If they didn’t have vehicles, she would hand them classic car keys and send them on their way.
One of those amateurs was 21-year-old Annika Sorenstam, who had come over from Sweden to play a full amateur schedule. “I was traveling by myself,” Sorenstam said. “Carol Semple-Thompson stayed with us that week as well. But Peggy couldn’t pronounce my name. So she called me Heineken. First of all, Heineken is not Swedish. And at the time I didn’t drink at all. I still don’t drink beer. But she called me Heineken from that day forward.”
One of those days was a Sunday, five years later, when Sorenstam made a putt on the 18th green to win the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. It was Sorenstam’s second consecutive U.S. Women’s Open victory. And the first ever contested at Mrs. Bell’s place.
If you look at footage of Sorenstam’s victory, she remained focused, even after the final putt fell, barely acknowledging the cheering crowd. But as she walked off the green, you see her eyes flash up and a smile pop onto her face as she waves, not to a group, but to one person – the woman on the patio yelling “Heineken!”
The “old broads” are back at Pine Needles this week at an event Mrs. Bell would have loved. She came within a shot of qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open at age 61, a day when she had five three-putts. “I was caddying that day and lost it for her,” Miller said. “But, man, could she still hit it.”
Everywhere you walk this week, there are old photos: Mrs. Bell and the Babe in swimsuits after a tournament round; Mrs. Bell climbing out of the cockpit of a Cessna; Mrs. Bell at the Memorial Tournament (where she served as the one of the cherished members of Jack Nicklaus’ Captains Club); Mrs. Bell with her family.
Or a story: “Right after I moved here, I brought a buddy over to play from Alabama,” Miller said. “Peg was playing with Alice Dye and when we got to the 12th hole, my buddy holed it from the fairway. (Mrs. Bell) said, ‘Where’d that ball go?’ I said, ‘Peg, he made it.’ She didn’t believe me so she drove her cart right onto the green and peered into the hole without getting out.”
Or a compliment: “She was one of the most generous people you’d ever meet,” Spork said. “Bullet had to calm her down or she’d have given the whole place away.”
Or a feeling. “I loved her,” Sorenstam said. “She was really, really special.”
Peggy Kirk Bell passed away at 95 in November 2016. She will be formally inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame next month.
Warren Bell, Peggy Kirk Bell and their Cessna 172. Photo: Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club.
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