To say Peggy Kirk Bell’s first foray into golf didn’t go well is something of an understatement.
She was a talented athlete, voted the best at her high school three years running, so surely, she could master the game. Her father, who owned three wholesale groceries and a sporting goods store there in Findley, Ohio, had recently joined a golf club and his daughter wanted to play.
So, Bell went to her dad’s storage room and got some golf clubs, along with three balls which she proceeded to lose before she reached the first green. The next day the 17-year-old took her first lesson – it cost 50 cents – and suffice it to say, she was hooked.
Bell spent two years at Boston University’s Sargent College of Physical Education before transferring to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, to play golf. She won three straight Ohio State Amateurs, the 1949 North & South Amateur and the 1950 Eastern Amateur, among other prestigious events.
Her crowning achievement as a player came in 1949, while still an amateur, when Bell won The Titleholders, considered a women’s major at the time. She shot 1 under at Augusta (Ga.) Country Club to beat Patty Berg and another amateur, Dorothy Kirby, by two strokes. The trophy presentation was made by none other than Bobby Jones.
Bell played on the 1950 U.S. Curtis Cup team and later turned professional. She was a charter member of the LPGA and a close friend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, whom she met over a gin rummy game at the Western Amateur. The two later teamed to win the 1947 Hollywood International Four-Ball.
Bell also had her pilot’s license and crisscrossed the country, going from tournament to tournament in her own plane just like her friend Arnold Palmer did, using roads and railroad tracks to help her navigate. She finally gave up flying, though, after having to land in a Virginia cornfield during a fierce snowstorm.
In 1953, she married Warren “Bullet” Bell, her high school sweetheart and a former professional basketball player with the Fort Wayne Pistons. That same year, they bought Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and soon Bell found her life’s work.
The Bells restored the Donald Ross course at the resort, which has since hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens and will do so again in 2022, while also enhancing and expanding the practice facility. Bell began to teach – although just like her first time on the golf course, the initial lesson didn’t go particularly well.
“I kept the woman for about two hours,” Bell recalled in 1991. “Finally, she said, ‘Can we please stop now?’”
Over the years, Bell taught literally thousands of men, women and children to play at Pine Needles, and her spirit continues to live on there to this day. Two decades after Bell and her husband bought Pine Needles, they purchased the resort across the street, Mid-Pines Inn and Golf Club, as well.
Bell, whose lessons invariably started with the grip she was taught by Ben Hogan, was recognized nationally as the 1961 LPGA Teacher of the Year and the first winner of the 1989 Ellen Griffin Rolex Award, named for her good friend and another icon of the game, who taught at a facility called “The Farm” near Greensboro, North Carolina.
Bell conceived Pine Needles’ highly successful “Golfaris” with help from Griffin. The five-day golf schools, originally targeted women, and reflected Bell’s desire to have her students learn the fundamentals but at the same time how to enjoy the game in the company of supportive friends. These “safaris of golf” have been expanded for youth, as well as couples and individual adults.
“Over the years, Peggy gained a unique reputation across golf for bringing people and women in particular into the game very successfully,” World Golf Hall of Famer Judy Rankin told the New York Times in 2014. “They didn't just improve and learn to play, but they stayed with it.”
The unassuming Bell, who died in 2016 at the age of 95, has won nearly every award in golf, including the USGA’s Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship, the Golf Writers Association of America’s William Richardson Award for service to the game and the National Golf Foundation’s Joe Graffis Award. She was annually recognized among the game’s top teachers and Golf Digest once called her one of the five most influential women in the game.
“She was just real,” Kathy Whitworth, the 88-time LPGA champ told the Raleigh News & Observer after Bell’s memorial service. “I mean, what you saw was what you got and there was no pretense about her. You always felt good when you were around her.
“When I think of her legacy, you’re never going to think of her and not smile.”
Bell, who also loved NFL football and enjoyed collecting cars, including a London taxi, was a member of eight Halls of Fame. She was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1976 and last year joined Retief Goosen, Jan Stephenson, Billy Payne and Dennis Walters in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“To me, golf is tradition and I think she was tradition,” Nancy Lopez told GolfWeek in 2019. “Golf is character, and I think she had great character. Golf is someone that gives back. I just think those are the kinds of people you want in the Hall of Fame, not just tournament winners, because a lot of tournament winners don’t have those characteristics.”
Tag(s): Member of the Month