Back in 1991, when the USGA told Peggy Kirk Bell they would bring the Women’s Open to Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in 1996, in large part in tribute to her, she joked, “Heck, I’ll be dead by then.” She lived to preside over that one and two more, adding to her legend as a living piece of golf history.
Bell, who died Wednesday night at 95, was golf royalty, an ambassador from a different era who lived long enough to see the rewards of her labors, a true original who flew her own plane and helped found women’s professional golf. Few people did more to advance the game of women’s golf -- and golf itself -- than Bell, who won a handful of tournaments in the ’40s and ’50s but was always a teacher first above all else. Even though the USGA first brought the Women’s Open to Pine Needles out of respect, they brought it back in 2001 and 2007 because the course was such a great host for the event.
Bell was the personal embodiment of the history of golf. She knew everyone, lived through everything, quickly earned the respect of everyone who met her, the kind of person who knew Donald Ross and could talk about offhand comments Herbert Warren Wind used to make – about her. A titan in the Sandhills, she and her late husband Bullet owned Pine Needles and Mid-Pines for more than 60 years, but it was at Pine Needles, whether in the dining room or on the practice tee, that she was truly in her element. She and Bullet, who died in 1984, built it into a venue worthy of hosting three Women’s Opens, but more than that, it was home.
Her children and their spouses surrounded her, running the place, and Bell would roam the lunch room or grill room, greeting guests and enjoying the buffet. On a day when it was too rainy to play and some lonely, discouraged group was out hitting balls on the driving range, she’d slosh out there in her golf cart to say hello and offer a tip or two. The halls were practically wallpapered with photos of Bell with every famous name in golf, from Arnie and Jack to Annika and Tiger, not to mention evidence of Michael Campbell’s celebration when he stayed at Pine Needles while winning the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 2005 and partied with Bell and her family late into the night.
There was always something poetic about the Women’s Open being played at Pine Needles under Bell’s watch. Instruction was always the cornerstone at Pine Needles, and her “Golfaris” taught thousands upon thousands of women to play golf, helping to build the foundation for the massive growth of the women’s game today. She was one of a dozen people in the room when Babe Zaharias first proposed playing a Women’s Open in 1946 and a charter member of the LPGA Tour. And she was the ultimate ambassador for the sport, fiery and outgoing, winning awards for her teaching over a 40-year span, the first woman inducted into Golf Magazine’s teaching hall of fame.
The dual opens at Pinehurst in 2014 were of course bittersweet for Bell, who had worked so hard to bring the Women’s Open to Pine Needles and had applied to host again. Still, on Sunday, she had a seat at the railing of the clubhouse veranda, overlooking the 18th green, her family at her side. Whatever the circumstances, she would be there, again and always a witness to golf history.
Bell once said Wind, one of golf’s greatest writers, told her, “You’ve used golf beautifully.” And she did. But golf got an awful lot out of the deal, too.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock