Commentary

DeCock: Pine Needles will always hold special place in LPGA lore

ldecock@newsobserver.comJune 18, 2014 

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Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club owner, Peggy Kirk Bell, celebrates the announcement in June 1996 that the U.S. Women's Championship will return to her course in 2001.

ROBERT WILLETT — NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— What really bugged Peggy Kirk Bell was not that the Women’s U.S. Open went to Pinehurst instead of Pine Needles. It was that no one told her until the last minute.

“I didn’t like it, because we had three here and we put in an application for the fourth,” Bell said over lunch one day recently at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, the resort she has owned for more than 60 years. “They called me the night before they announced it, that they were having the men’s and women’s, to tell us.”

Bell, 92, swallowed her disappointment and carried on. Pine Needles is hosting a bevy of U.S. Golf Association sponsors and other important people during these two weeks, and she isn’t the type to cling to grudges: When the USGA brass rolled into Pinehurst in April for media day, Bell was sitting right up near the front, any hard feelings put aside.

“Peggy, you are a true living legend and we loved having the Women’s Open championship over at Pine Needles,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “It’s just great to see you here today.”

Still, there’s a Women’s U.S. Open being played in the Sandhills somewhere other than Pine Needles, where it came in 1996, 2001 and 2007. The resort was willing to host the event at a time when there wasn’t exactly a clamor to do so, and there was something fitting about the Open being played on the same course, the tremendous Donald Ross layout, where Bell had taught so many women how to play – how to love – the game.

For those reasons or others, all three of Pine Needles’ Opens were memorable, from the dominance of a young Annika Sorenstam in 1996 to Karrie Webb’s runaway in 2001 to Cristie Kerr finally breaking through with her first major win in 2007.

“Pine Needles is where I played my first U.S. Open, in ’96,” Webb said. “That was my introduction to U.S. Open golf and I loved it immediately. Then to come back there and win, I loved the course from the moment I saw it in ’96, so I was very excited to win on a course I liked so much. Heading into the ’01 Open I was very excited about my prospects because of how I felt about it since ’96.”

(Even the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst ran through Pine Needles: Jason Gore and Michael Campbell both stayed there all week, with Campbell’s celebration at the hotel bar lasting deep into Monday morning.)

And now, what might be the most ballyhooed Women’s U.S. Open ever, playing Pinehurst’s No. 2 course immediately after the men, is happening down the road instead. There’s something sad about that, something of irreplaceable character being lost.

Bell has been one of the pivotal figures in the growth of women’s golf in the United States for decades, and if these dual opens do end up being a pinnacle of the women’s game, it’s a shame it took walking away from Pine Needles to do it.

“I think Miss Bell obviously is very disappointed, being there at Pine Needles,” said longtime tour pro Donna Andrews, now an instructor at the resort. “It would always be nice to have another Women’s Open back there. But we had three within 11 years. That was unheard of. Obviously we’re not going to get one back in her lifetime.”

Bell, her own personal disappointment aside, still is a fan of golf, a true connoisseur of the game. She will be watching. She can’t imagine otherwise.

“It’s going to be exciting to watch it,” Bell said. “I can’t wait. As long as it doesn’t rain.”

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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