We continue in the week of celebration surrounding Peggy Kirk Bell, our tour matriarch, and her induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019. Though her induction ceremony took place on Monday, one evening does not do Mrs. Bell’s seven-plus decades of dedication to the game justice.
In honor of her monumental contributions to the growth of women’s golf, we continue our four-part series reflecting on the many roadblocks Mrs. Bell overcame and the barriers she broke along the way. The first two segments brought us back to the earliest days of young Peggy Kirk, before she was a Bell. From her very first lessons in Findlay, Ohio throughout the summer of 1939 to her role in the inception of the LPGA, we followed Peggy’s journey through a memorable playing career.
Tour Life Takes the Backseat
While tournament play was the central focus of the LPGA, it was not the lone source of income for players on the tour. When she wasn’t competing, Peggy Kirk would travel around to every Sears Roebuck across the land and give clinics in the parking lots or sporting goods sections of the stores. The main goal was to sell golf clubs, serving as a sponsor for Spalding, but this was Peggy’s first taste of sharing her knowledge of the game with crowds willing to listen.
After an impactful yet grueling three-year career on the road, Peggy retired from tour travel in 1953. She continued to participate in LPGA events for more than a decade following, though only at the larger events and those closest to her home. One major factor which played a role in her decision to settle down came in the form of a bullet.
Warren “Bullet” Bell, Peggy’s childhood sweetheart from back home in Ohio, that is. Bullet was no Joe Schmo by any means. Surfacing as a standout on the Ohio State University basketball team, he went on to a successful professional career with the Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons. The same year she retired from touring, Peggy married Bullet. Yes, the marriage brings an end to that awkward situation in our story thus far: little Margaret Anne officially became Peggy Kirk Bell. Has a special ring to it, right?
Newlyweds Hard at Work
In old letters dug up by Peggy’s daughter Bonnie following her mother’s death in 2016, Bullet wrote to his future wife, “I know if I buy a golf course, you’ll marry me.” That humorous poke at Peggy’s passion for the game transformed into a reality.
In 1953, shortly after their marriage, the Bells invested in a Donald Ross-designed golf course, fixed up nine separate lodges totaling 67 rooms, and opened Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Course in Southern Pines, North Carolina.
It was at Pine Needles where Peggy settled into the role of instructor, thanks in part to her husband. One afternoon, Bullet urged Peggy to go give lessons to a woman at their facilities. Peggy snapped back, “I don’t teach, I play!”
Bullet countered Peggy’s claim that she couldn’t teach with a simple explanation: “You know more than she does, go tell her something.”
Peggy approached the woman, evaluating and offering advice with each swing she took. Suggesting small adjustments each time around and exhausting her first student until they requested the lesson end, two hours later. As Peggy described in an interview with GolfConversations.com, the woman asked to quit the instruction and never played golf again.
One of the rare students to quit after a lesson under Mrs. Bell’s watch, her students were often chomping at the bit to return for their next session. Instruction was established as the cornerstone to Pine Needles foundation, most notably for their “Golfaris” which taught thousands upon thousands of women to play. But the course wasn’t always known for classes and lessons. Only with the help of a friend did Mrs. Bell deflect the trajectory of Pine Needles’ business model.
The Wild “Golfari”
The curtain to this tale opens in the Pine Needles dining area where Peggy was sharing lunch with Ellen Griffin, in the primitive stages of the Bell’s business endeavor. Griffin, considered one of the best-known female golf instructors in American history, taught at “The Farm” near Greensboro, North Carolina.
Bullet stormed in, disrupting the lunch between friends, notably upset. He informed the duo that an entire company had canceled their upcoming stay at the resort with less than a week’s notice. Aside from the creation of a strategic cancellation policy to avoid this scenario in the future, Griffin offered an alternative solution. The course should hold a golf school.
Bullet then replied, “I’m not in the school business, I’m in the hotel business. I’m in enough businesses here: bar, golf course, restaurant, housing” Curious as to just how profitable Bullet’s “hotel business” was, Ellen asked him to write down the cost for a customer to stay in the lodge, play golf, and eat at the restaurant. When he returned with a figure, the ladies said, “we’ll see what we can do.”
Ellen and Peggy chose to post an advertisement in Golf World, which was rather inexpensive, promoting a “Golf School for Women”. Adding pizzazz to the name, they coined the experience “Golfaris”: room, board, golf, and lessons for women only. A week-long safari of golf.
Peggy mailed the advertisement to all of the women’s golf chairmen at clubs throughout North and South Carolina, and 58 women signed up by the first week. The next year, 150 women. And the following year, two separate Golfaris with 150 women each! The demand was so high that they added two more Golfaris that February. Each Golfari was built around the same guiding principle: the perfect balance between learning golf, playing golf, and relaxing in the company of friends.
Peggy continued to lead Golfaris until the very end of her life and the experience lives on today, available to both male and female golfers. The LPGA annually awards the Ellen Griffin Rolex Award, named after the co-creator of the Golfari, to a deserving golf teacher who displays the same qualities as she did. Peggy achieved this honor in 1989, the very year it was established.
Compassion. Understanding. Patience.
The backbone of every Peggy Kirk Bell lesson was proper grip. She was a stickler about this fundamental to the game after learning the ropes from the great Ben Hogan back in 1947, the same year her amateur career took off.
When someone refused to change their grip, Mrs. Bell would respond, “Well, I can’t help you if you can’t get that.” The student would often ask what else they could do to find a better result, to which she would respond, “Change your grip!”
Though she was stern in her advocacy for grip placement on the club, the true quality that separated Mrs. Bell from the rest of the nation’s instructors – much like takeoffs and landings set her apart from touring partners in her playing days – was patience. Peggy knew the instruction environment must be stress-free, otherwise students would not return for a second lesson.
She “had great patience, a lot of stamina, and understood the spirit of the game is a social experience,” described Michael Hebron, a master PGA professional who served as an instructor at Golfaris. “People were comfortable coming back because they knew they were going to have fun.”
While she was patient and understanding of her students, there was no golfer that Mrs. Bell critiqued and criticized more than herself. She continued to practice, tweak, analyze, and adjust her swing until her body was no longer physically capable of supporting her game. Constantly fascinated by the mystery of the swing, Peggy never lost the drive to learn and lived her entire life as a student of the game. Another quality that earned Mrs. Bell the reputation as one of the greatest instructors in golf history.
Golf’s Greatest Ambassador
Contagious passion and a desire to grow the game of golf led Peggy’s path to cross with so many of the sport’s most notable figures. She learned technique from Patty Berg and Ben Hogan, shared a love for flight and for people with Arnold Palmer, and befriended Bryon Nelson and Jack Nicklaus. Her ferocious drive caught the eye of athletes outside of golf, most notably six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan.
Her relationships with high-status individuals, and her laundry list of awards and accolades, never phased Mrs. Bell. As with her playing and teaching careers, she was in it for one reason: the love of the game. She lived as a “personal embodiment of the history of golf…who knew everyone, lived through everything and earned the respect of everyone,” describes Luke DeCock of The News and Observer.
There was nowhere that Peggy was more “Peggy” than at Pine Needles, where she was truly in her element – whether in the dining room or at the practice green. The course and business which the Bells acquired as newlyweds transformed into a home for their family to grow. And it did.
The couple raised three children at Pine Needles: Bonnie Kirk (born in 1954), Peggy Ann (born in 1958), and Warren Kirk (born in 1962). Inside the restaurant, on the course, and throughout the lodge, an “everyone is family” atmosphere led golfers to return time and time again.
Though Bullet passed away in 1984, Peggy and her family continued to run the business and, in 1991, were selected to host the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open. In 1994, the family purchased Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club, the Donald Ross-designed course across the street from Pine Needles. The family environment, friendly and welcoming staff, and unique social experience of a stay at either resort is a reflection of the Bell’s dedication and humility that lives on today.
Mrs. Bell opened the gates for more than 20,000 women to learn the game in a positive environment at her Golfaris. She also lent her instruction, and living space, to young women pursuing their dreams of professional golf. No instance more notable than the summer of 1992 when Peggy invited a young Swedish amateur into her home: Annika Sorenstam.
The two bonded instantly, though Peggy would refer to the future 10-time major champion as “Heineken” because she couldn’t pronounce Sorenstam’s name. When Sorenstam returned for the U.S. Women’s Open in 1996, she remembers Peggy “and her family riding around in that cart that week.”
Sorenstam recalls of the impact Mrs. Bell made, “They seemed to always be near where I was playing and I appreciated that so much.”
Open for Business
When the USGA informed the family, in 1991, that Pine Needles was selected to host the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open, it was largely a gesture of respect to honor Mrs. Bell’s legacy. Southern Pines locals were less-than-confident in the small town’s ability to handle the national spotlight, and many around the state doubted the event would succeed. As Sorenstam hoisted the trophy after taking the second major championship of her career, the event was deemed a smashing success. Thanks to Mrs. Bell.
In fact, the event was so extraordinary that the USGA opted to return in 2001. And again in 2007. And is set to return once more in 2022, with the 2019 U.S. Senior Women’s Open squeezed in between this past May.
A Decorative Legacy
Mrs. Bell’s motherly nature was infectious and was the leading force which made her lessons more enjoyable and successful than any instructor in the nation. Her induction as part of the World Golf Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 marks the eighth hall of fame to honor Mrs. Bell.
Other notable inductions include the Ohio Sports Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame, the LPGA Teacher and Club Professional Hall of Fame, and the first woman to earn her place in the PGA Golf Instructors Hall of Fame.
Aside from Hall of Fame inductions, Mrs. Bell’s list of accomplishments resembles the opening text of every Star Wars film. Along the way she has been awarded:
- Golf Writers Association’s William Richardson Award
- LPGA Ellen Griffin Rolex Award
- National Golf Foundation’s Joe Graffis Award
- National Golf Course Owners Order of Merit
- Golf Digest, Golf Magazine and Golf for Women recognized her excellence in teaching
- LPGA Teacher of the Year (1961)
- PGA’s First Lady of Golf (2007)
In 1990, Peggy was selected to receive the USGA Bobby Jones Award. The honor annually recognizes an individual who best demonstrates spirit, personal character, and respect for the game. It is considered the highest honor bestowed by the USGA, and it is only fitting that the award is included in Mrs. Bell’s impressive list of accolades.
The Stars Align
While Mrs. Bell hosted the third and final U.S. Women’s Open of her lifetime, a movement was stirring in the Triad region of North Carolina. A local girls’ golf tour, founded by the non-profit Triad Youth Golf Foundation, was amidst its inaugural season. The six-event series featured 65 participants and was sponsored by the LPGA-USGA girls’ golf programs of Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
What separated the tour, which began as an idea to create more effective competitive playing opportunities for girls in the Carolina’s, from others of its kind: innovative yardage-based divisions in lieu of the traditional age-based format.
The tour promoted a welcoming, positive environment for girls’ golfers of all ages and experience levels to compete in a tournament atmosphere. An innovation which encouraged late-bloomers, much like Peggy Kirk Bell in her early days, to pick up the game of golf.
In Part Four, Peggy Kirk Bell: The Matriarch
An all-girls’ tour based around this concept and a pioneer in women’s golf. In the following years, the two worlds would collide, transforming the tour’s roadmap to success and opening countless opportunities for junior girls’ golfers across the country. Our story will come to a close in the fourth and final installment, Peggy Kirk Bell: The Matriarch.
About the PKBGT
Founded in 2007 by the Triad Youth Golf Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, as a local girls’ golf tour in the Triad region of North Carolina, the tour began as a simple concept: create more effective competitive playing opportunities for girls. By utilizing innovative yardage-based divisions instead of the traditional age-based format, the tour focused on developing tournament experience at the player’s pace. The 2019 season will feature over 90 tournaments in 9 states on the East Coast and with over 900 members, the PKBGT is the largest girl’s only tour in the country. Learn more about the PKBGT at http://www.pkbgt.org/.