Pearce adds to the Eller family’s golf tradition
When Beverly (Eller) Pearce became the third member of her family to be inducted into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame earlier this month, she proved that if there’s such a thing as golf royalty, the Eller family is Tennessee’s version.
Pearce, 73, has played in 54 consecutive Tennessee State Amateurs, won five State Senior titles and has three holes-in-one in her 63 years playing the game. She took up golf as a 10-year-old looking to stay out of trouble after school when her dad, Harold, became a teaching professional at Old Hickory (Tenn.) Country Club in 1946. It also helped that the golf course served as the Ellers’ backyard.
“When we found out about (golf), he just said, ‘I’ll give you a set of clubs and see if you like it,’ ” Pearce said. The sport agreed with her, and that relationship continued with her father as her teacher.
By age 14, Pearce was touring the state with her mom, Ruth, and younger sister, Judy (Eller) Street, playing what she calls the “Tennessee fried-chicken circuit.” Because there were no junior tournaments for girls then, they would compete in one-day invitationals against older women, stopping midway through their 18 holes for a fried-chicken lunch.
“We were the only two girls playing at that time,” Pearce said.
It was during those years that Pearce and Street fell in love with the game, and increased their competition schedule. Eventually, that meant the two would have to face off for a State Amateur title. When Pearce was 19 and Street 15, the sisters met in the semifinals of the State Amateur. Pearce lost the match, after a much different night-before routine than her sister.
“Judy went to bed early, and I had a date,” she explained. “I was late getting in. Somebody said to me, ‘Bev, you paid the pauper last night,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I did.’”
Pearce has a number of such off-course memories that have made golf that much sweeter through the years. She met her future husband, Gene Pearce, when the State Amateur returned to Jackson, Tenn., and he requested an interview for The Tennessean, where he was a reporter. The two began dating after the tournament, were married shortly after (both were 24) and continued to live in Jackson. Both continue to play about three days a week, and Gene is quick to point out his wife’s talent.
“She’s the kind of person, she doesn’t ever practice or anything,” Gene said. “. . . In any case, she’s just a good player.”
Street was the first of the Eller sisters to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. Beverly calls Street the better player, and Street chalks it up to different approaches to the game.
“She did not like to practice as much as I did, and I think that was the main difference,” she said. “She was the oldest, and I think probably there was a lot of pressure on being the oldest.”
The pair first met each other in competition as 12- and 16-year-olds in the Nashville City Tournament, and a win by Street resulted in a teary finish by both players.
“We laugh about that now,” Street said, conceding that it was difficult for them.
Both, however, insist they weren’t particularly competitive with one another, though in Street’s case, it’s with tongue firmly in cheek.
“I would lie down on the ground to see who was away,” she said. “If our balls were even close to the fairway or the rough, I would lie down to get a straight look at it to see who had to hit first.”
While Pearce never won a State Amateur title, Street claimed seven, and together with World Golf Hall of Famer JoAnne (Gunderson) Carner, was one of the most notable names in women’s golf in the country. Street, however, turned down an offer to play professionally.
“I wanted to get married and have a family, so that was the route I went,” she said, and Pearce felt the same way.
Among Street’s titles were two U.S. Junior Girls’ championships and an NCAA title while at the University of Miami. Street also was a member of the victorious U.S. Curtis Cup teams in 1960 and ’62.
Outside of having a number of amateur medals hung from her neck, Street had another experience that Pearce never did. After using three of her years of college eligibility at the University of Miami, Street returned to the college circuit in 2001 as a nontraditional student and used her final year of athletic eligibility at Barry University, a Division II school in Miami. She was 61.
“That was a wonderful experience,” Street said.During her single season at Barry, Street maintained a scoring average of 83, with a T-8 finish her lowest of the season.
Pearce and Street’s generation – which also included brothers Richard Eller, a golf professional, course designer and architect, and Mike Eller, who had a lifelong career in golf-course ownership – is sandwiched by many other notable figures in Tennessee golf history. Dick Horton, president of the Tennessee Golf Foundation, called their father Harold “the consummate golf professional” for his involvement both with his family on the golf course and his presence in the local and state golf scene.
Ruth Eller, Pearce and Street’s mother, also pulled double duty as a mother and an advocate for Tennessee junior golf. After spending many years driving her daughters to tournaments, Ruth found time to start the Tennessee Junior Golf Championship in 1967, which served as the first true statewide junior-golf activity.
Pearce continued to stay involved with Tennessee junior golf and also helped to merge the Tennessee men’s and women’s associations. Meanwhile her husband, Gene, produced a 500-page history of Tennessee golf.
“The book that he wrote was absolutely incredible,” Horton said. “It was by far the most informative book of facts and figures and characters and people of any state golf association anywhere in the country.”
The Pearces’ sons, Barry and Ray, are PGA professionals. Ray’s wife, Connie, has worked at the administrative level of the Tennessee Golf Association for 20 years, and their two children also play.
With three Ellers in the Hall of Fame already, Horton notes that it’s possible the list could grow.
“Without them, there would be probably some glaring holes in the organizational structure and the activity level might not exist today,” Horton said. “It’s hard to say what the landscape would have looked like, but it certainly would have looked different without the Eller family.”