The Peggy Kirk Bell Girls’ Golf Tour would not exist without one individual. The same could be stated in regards to the LPGA Tour and women’s golf entirely. On Monday, June 10, our tour matriarch, Peggy Kirk Bell, will solidify her spot as one of the sport’s true pioneers-joining her many historic counterparts as a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Though she will be inducted posthumously, having passed away at the age of 95 in 2016, Mrs. Bell’s spirit lives on within the women’s golf community. Monday evening’s ceremony is the ultimate honor and an exclamation point to her impressive and well-decorated legacy.
She was a pioneer, serving as a charter member of the LPGA Tour. Her passion for the game led to an extensive career as an instructor and her ambition resulted in Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club – which she purchased alongside her husband Warren – hosting three U.S. Women’s Opens in her lifetime, and the fourth set for 2022.
With each PKBGT event, taking place across the eastern US seaboard and beyond, Mrs. Bell’s impact in the women’s golf community multiplies. Though dozens of girls congregate each weekend – building friendships and forming valuable skills beyond the golf course – they may not be aware of the trailblazer who paved the way for the many opportunities presented to young women through the game of golf.
In celebration of the awe-inspiring achievement with the induction ceremony on Monday night, we present a four-part series to recount and reflect on Mrs. Bell’s courageous journey as one of golf’s greatest players, instructors, and ambassadors. On the first leg of her voyage, we highlight Mrs. Bell’s roots and the origin of Peggy Kirk Bell: The Player.
All quotes courtesy of “Driving ‘em Straight”, an episode of The Story on American Public Media.
Born Out of Boredom
Margaret Anne Kirk was born in October of 1921, though it would be remiss to refer to Kirk by any name aside from “Peggy”. Findlay- a small town in Northwest Ohio – was home to the Kirk family and young Peggy held a passion for sports at a young age.
At just 12 years old, Peggy decided she wanted to become a physical education teacher. Every summer, she would travel to New Hampshire and spend two months at camp – excelling as a natural athlete and enjoying the time to explore different sports before returning home.
In the summer of 1939, as she prepared for one last summer before heading to Boston University (before transferring to Rollins College), Peggy was blindsided. Informed by her mother that she would remain in Findlay for the summer, having grown too old for the camp, Kirk wondered how she would pass two months alone in the desolate countryside.
In a perfect storm of luck and timing – on the very same day – Peggy’s father was approached by a gentleman who worked for Marathon Oil. Marathon was shipping the man west, and he hoped to sell Mr. Kirk his membership to Findlay Country Club. Though neither of her parents played the game, with his children in mind, Peggy’s father purchased the membership. He declared at dinner that evening, “If any of you youngsters want to go play golf, we belong to the country club now”. At that very moment, lights went off in Peggy’s head as she decided that is what she would do to pass the time for the duration of the summer.
First Set of Sticks
At the warehouse of her father’s sporting goods store, Peggy flocked to the back corner where they kept the golf clubs. Eager to get out on the course, she approached the employee at the front counter. “George, I gotta have a set of those sticks!”, she demanded. He waltzed with Peggy back to the corner of golfing equipment and fixed her up with the following:
- A small bag
- Three golf balls
This would be the tools of her craft for the first several years of her golfing career. At 17 years old, with no experience aside from swinging a club once or twice at summer camp, Peggy was off to the club to give it a shot.
Upon arrival, Peggy strutted to the clubhouse and asked where to start play – to the surprise of many in the room. It wasn’t uncommon for women to hit the course, but it was uncommon for young women to take up the sport. In the 1930s, most women at Findlay Country Club where older women and, in Peggy’s eyes, they weren’t very good.
With the same courage that she would display throughout in life, Peggy stepped onto the first tee and – having no prior playing experience and without a hint of a driving range warmup session – she took a hack. The result? A slice straight into the woods. She dropped another and tried again. Crack…whomp! Into the woods once more. After one final effort with an identical result, Peggy climbed into the woods in search of her three lost golf balls.
It was then and there that she had two revelations: 1) golf balls were not easy to locate in the wilderness, and 2) it would be a long summer at this rate of play. So, she stormed into the pro shop and – without hesitation – asked if there was anyone who could teach her how to play.
The Summer (and the Start) of Something Special
She was pointed in the direction of a man named Leonard Schmutte, the club’s PGA professional. Peggy wasted no time and asked, “How am I supposed to hold this thing?” as she waved it around like a baseball bat. He asked if she would like a lesson, which cost a whopping $1 in 1939 – a more-than-affordable deal, even to a rising college freshman.
She was ready to head back out immediately, but Schmutte informed her that they would meet at 9 a.m. the next day. Having sent all three of the golf balls from her starter set into the woods, Peggy returned to the sporting goods store. Grabbing a dozen she said, “Gimme a box of these, they’re hard to find!”
Peggy was at the club at 9 o’clock sharp the following morning, eager to figure out the sport with the help of an experienced professional. At the conclusion of their first lesson, Schmutte questioned Peggy on just how serious she was about the game of golf. Aware that it would be the only activity she’d focus on for the next two months, Peggy informed the club’s professional that she would dedicate her entire summer toward the game.
Schmutte was on board. “If you’ll work, I’ll help you,” he declared. Though she was a late-bloomer to the links and had no knowledge of the game, Schmutte could tell that Peggy was special. She was very strong and spectacularly athletic, voted Athlete of the Year three times in high school. It was no surprise that, come the fall, she would head to Boston to fulfill 12-year-old Peggy’s prophecy and focus her studies on becoming a physical education teacher.
For the time being, she was determined to conquer the course with the guidance of Schmutte. To no surprise, Peggy worked her tail off spending every waking moment of her summer at the club. Though she was spraying the ball all over the place, she was hitting it long.
Aware of her abilities and ensuring that she made the most of her time, Schmutte would see to it that Peggy play with the best male talent the club had to offer. He would play with the better players and take Peggy along for the round.
Her instructor and mentor wanted Peggy to see their swings but made certain that she wouldn’t hold up play. “Don’t hold us up…keep moving…the slower you play, the worse you place,” he used to preach as she would pick up before completing the hole on several occasions.
Though at times it was intimidating, Peggy never backed down to the challenge and kept up with the cream of the crop at Findlay Country Club. Her experience was invaluable, and she slowly started to pick up the resemblance of a golf swing. With every passing day, she kept the ball in play more often and showcased extraordinary strength and length with her swing.
As the summer wound down to a close, Peggy’s lessons with Schmutte came to an end. What seemed, at once, like a two-month period that may last an eternity flew by before her eyes. Prepared to ship off to college and a new beginning, Peggy’s summer project to learn the game of golf was far from over. It had just begun.
In Part 2, Peggy Kirk Bell: The Professional (and the Pilot)
If you’ll work, I’ll help you. Those words from Leonard Schmutte would resonate inside Peggy’s mind and become a fixture in her way of life as she improved and progressed as a golfer, transitioning into the role of “instructor” following her amateur and professional playing career. Pure, genuine love for golf would fuel her future accomplishments, creating “Golfaris” to teach women the game and winning over the hearts of every notable name you can think of in the sport’s rich history.
Stay tuned for the next installment of our four-part series, Peggy Kirk Bell, and tune in to the World Golf Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony tonight at 7:30 ET on the Golf Channel!
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/.