Peggy Kirk Bell, a member of the 1950 USA Curtis Cup team, winner of the 1990 Bob Jones Award, one of golf’s foremost instructors and an inspirational ambassador for the game, died on Nov. 23 at the age of 95. Bell was born Margaret Anne Kirk on Oct. 28, 1921, in Findlay, Ohio, and cited her father as a strong early influence.
“My dad made a lot of money in the wholesale grocery business,” Bell told Golf Digest in 2010. “Financially, we were comfortable, but he made us work. He paid me 10 cents an hour, but the other two women got 20 cents an hour. When I asked him why, he said, ‘Because you’re the boss’ daughter.’ I grew up believing it’s important to teach kids to work early on. If you start them young, they’ll learn to enjoy work.” From those early days all the way into her 90s, Bell rarely stopped working. In a lifetime in the game, she compiled an outstanding record as an amateur in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and was a charter member of the LPGA. She then became renowned as masterful instructor and the owner/proprietor of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.
Bell is largely credited with being the driving force behind Pine Needles’ hosting of three U.S. Women’s Open Championships – in 1996, 2001 and 2007. Pine Needles was also selected by the USGA as one of the first two host sites of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open Championship, which debuts in 2018 and will be held at Pine Needles in 2019. Bell received the USGA’s Bob Jones Award in 1990 for distinguished sportsmanship and service to the game, and was later a member of the Bob Jones Award Committee. In 2007 she was named the “First Lady of Golf” by the PGA of America. “She’s meant so much to so many people in the game,” Jack Nicklaus said at the ceremony. “There are so many girls, especially, that she has taught and worked with.”
Bell was best known as an instructor. She won the 1961 LPGA Teacher of the Year Award and in 2004 was inducted into the Golf Magazine World Golf Teacher Hall of Fame. “She supported juniors, she helped touring pros, she was there for seniors, she was there for women. She was there for the game,” said past USGA president Judy Bell (no relation). “I don’t know anyone who loved the game more than she did. She was an icon.”
Bell’s hospitality, warmth and wit set the tone at Pine Needles. She lived in a house near the 18th green, but ate most of her meals in the clubhouse. Pine Needles guests would spot her observing meal preparation in the kitchen, dining at her table in the center of the room, then, more often than not, joining them for conversation. She had a wealth of anecdotes about her famous friends. “Babe (Zaharias) came to see me in the hospital after I had Bonnie,” Bell would say. “She took one look at her and said, ‘Peggy, I know just the name for her – Babe! Babe Bell! It’ll look great in headlines!’” Peggy and her husband Warren “Bullet” Bell instead chose the name Bonnie for their daughter, who was followed by daughter Peggy and son Kirk. Bell graduated from Rollins College in 1950 with a degree in physical education. A collegiate tournament has been named for her.
A long-hitter in her day, Bell had a fluid, classical golf swing that produced crisp iron play and helped boost her to an outstanding amateur career. She won the Ohio Women’s Amateur three consecutive years, from 1947-49, and also captured some of the most prestigious amateur titles of the day. These include the 1950 Women’s Eastern Amateur, the 1949 North & South Women’s Amateur and the 1949 Titleholders, where she beat a field that included the era’s best professionals, including Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg. With Zaharias as her partner, she won the 1947 Women’s International Four-Ball Championship. She was selected for the 1950 USA Curtis Cup Team, which was captained by Glenna Collett Vare. In the match at the Country Club of Buffalo in Williamsville, N.Y., she lost in foursomes with her partner Helen Sigel, who became a lifelong friend, but won her singles match against Jeanne Bisgood, 1 up. The USA defeated Great Britain and Ireland, 7½-1½.
Bell turned professional in 1950, enjoying a contract with the Spalding Sporting Goods Company that paid her $10,000 annually, $50 a day for exhibitions and 6 cents a mile for travel. For a few years she became the only player to pilot her own airplane, searching out the various LPGA stops by following road maps from the air. A narrow escape and a forced landing prompted her to sell the plane. Peggy and Bullet made two of the biggest moves of their lives in 1953 – they got married and, with partners, bought the Donald Ross-designed Pine Needles golf course in Southern Pines, then rolled up their sleeves to build a golf resort. Their first project was a chalet-styled clubhouse. The rustic resort grew in size and stature over the years as the Bells added lodges, meeting rooms and a pool. With a growing family and the demands of running the resort, Peggy retired from the tour and turned to golf instruction. “I gave my first golf lesson in “53 and I charged $2,” she said. “That was pretty good then.” A few years later, Bell and the late Ellen Griffin organized a golf school for women. More than 20,000 women have since visited the week-long “Golfaris” at Pine Needles.
When Bullet died in 1984, Peggy continued to oversee the resort with her children and their spouses at the helm. Pine Needles hosted five USGA championships, including the 1989 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship and the 1991 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur. At dinner one night with longtime friend Judy Bell, a member of the USGA’s Executive Committee, Peggy said, “Well, we’ve had the old ladies and we’ve had the girls. Now if we could get some pros in here we’d have it covered.” Judy Bell later approached Peggy about hosting the U.S. Women’s Open and the championship was conducted at Pine Needles in 1996, 2001 and 2007. Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb won the first two Women’s Opens, and multiple major champion Cristie Kerr won in 2007.
A few years ago, the late two-time U.S. Amateur champion Harvie Ward summed up his friend: “She’s a great lady and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about Peggy Kirk Bell. They can’t.”