For Peggy Kirk Bell, golf – like life – has been a joyride

Rollins College has hosted a women's tournament with Peggy Kirk Bell's name on it since 1977.

Rollins College has hosted a women's tournament with Peggy Kirk Bell's name on it since 1977.

WINTER SPRINGS, Fla. – It was the night before the final round of the 1950 Curtis Cup, and Peggy Kirk Bell couldn’t sleep. She went to the room of U.S. captain Glenna Collett Vare, knocked on the door and begged to be benched: “I’m afraid I’ll lose.”

Vare offered little sympathy.

“She said ‘I’m the captain and you’re playing,’ ” Bell recalled. “Then she slammed the door.”

Vare approached Bell the next day on the 17th hole and asked how her match stood. Bell gave her the all-square signal.

“Go get her,” Vare urged, and then handed her player a four-leaf clover. Bell went on to win a point for the U.S. after her opponent, Jeanne Bisgood, stymied herself on the 18th green. (“Do you remember what stymies were?” Bell asks the reporter.)

Listening to Bell tell a story that’s more than 60 years old, in vivid detail, shows how sharp she remains. It also makes one wonder if that 1950 Curtis Cup was the last time this golfing legend considered giving up – on anything.

“Every time Bell saw Bisgood, she’d say “Jeanne, you couldn’t beat me then, and you won’t beat me now.” Then she’d laugh.

Since 1977, Rollins College has hosted a tournament bearing Bell’s name. The Peggy Kirk Bell Invitational – which begins today at Tuscawilla Country Club in Winter Springs, Fla. – welcomes the top Division II women's teams in the country, and Bell was on hand nearly every year until recent health problems kept her home. When she celebrated her 90th birthday last year, nearly 400 friends and family made their way to Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C., to celebrate.

“She does support our program, definitely, but it’s really more to honor her,” Rollins head coach Julie Garner said. “I tease her a lot, as I do a lot of our other former players, that I love to ride their coat tails as much as possible.”

Bell, a 1943 Rollins alumna, rarely made a trip to the leafy central Florida campus, preferring to spend her time at the tournament watching golf. Long considered one of the nation’s top instructors, Bell remains a student of the game. She loves to offer her opinion on just about anything, even telling Garner how to coach – with a subtle wink.

Garner looked after Bell as if she were royalty, which, in a way is true. The Southern transplant was a pioneer in the women’s game, playing in the first women’s intercollegiate national championship; teaming with Babe Zaharias to win the International Four-Ball; becoming the first LPGA player to fly cross-country to events in her own plane.

And then, of course, there’s Pine Needles Resort – a three-time host of the U.S. Women’s Open. Bell and her late husband, Warren E. “Bullet” Bell, bought the Donald Ross design and poured out their hearts to make it a success. Rollins also hosts an event each fall in the Sandhills region, alternating between Pine Needles and Bell’s other resort, Mid Pines.

Notoriously frugal when it comes to spending money on herself, Bell counts Taco Bell as her favorite place to eat, once bragging on a new menu item that ran her 81 cents.

She bought her first car, an Oakland convertible, for $57.50. Tuition at Rollins cost $1,200 in her day (compared to roughly $40,000 now) and movie tickets were a dime. Bell once said America can fix its economic woes by taking a lesson she learned in high school.

When Bell wanted to switch from the clarinet to the trumpet, her mother refused because it made too much noise. So Bell set out to buy it herself. She put $5 down on a trumpet and watched the store clerk put it up on a shelf behind the counter. Every two weeks she’d go in and add a little more. Two years later, Bell had her trumpet.

“That’s the way it should be done,” she said. “Why give you something if you haven’t paid for it?”

Bell learned the advantages of the layaway system long before she picked up a golf club. She was voted best athlete in high school, and her father, Bob, joined Findlay (Ohio) Country Club the summer after her senior year, though her parents didn’t play golf. Bell immediately went to her father’s storage room and asked the attendant for “some of those sticks on the wall.” He obliged and also gave her three balls. Bell drove out to the course and went straight to the first tee.

“I went out with my three balls, and I never made it to the first green,” said Bell, who sliced all three into the woods. She marched straight to the pro shop and asked to see “the teacher.” Head pro Leonard Schmutte set up a lesson the next morning and promised to teach her the rest of the summer if she would practice every day. Bell went back to her father’s storage room and asked for the entire box of golf balls.

Two years later Bell, who was then in college in Boston, met Patty Berg at the first women’s intercollegiate national championship at Ohio State.

“She was there working for Wilson,” Bell recalled. “I thought, this is wonderful. She knows where the ball is going.”

Bell learned how to shape shots at Berg’s exhibition, and still owns the Wilson ball that Berg gave her as a souvenir.

Shortly thereafter, Bell decided she needed a college where she could play golf year-round and keep the top down on her new Packard convertible. She picked Rollins, and every day at noon headed to nearby Dubsdread Golf Club in Orlando for money games. In the spring, she took on Major League Baseball players. They played a $5 Nassau but rigged it so that a young Bell could only win money, not lose.

Bell, of course, went on to become a charter member of the LPGA, and found a bit of fame with her penchant for flying. She’s amazed at the scope of today’s operation in Daytona Beach: “We (the players) did it all.”

“You can’t pay a pro today to go to dinners that are free,” Bell said. “We’d go and say ‘Man, we’re going to get a dinner tonight.’ They have dinner in their bedroom. It’s a different world. It’s wasteful.”

Some might say the same thing about the eight cars Bell owns, though she’s trying to get rid of the limousine she bought to shuttle resort guests. But, behind every car there’s a story, and one of them, the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible, white with a red interior, was a gift she received from a fellow Rollins graduate at a pro-am fundraiser.

“It’s so typical for Mrs. Bell,” Garner said. “Here’s a guy just giving her a car.”

Bell laughs when she tells the story of driving her limo from Florida to North Carolina after she bought it. When she pulled into McDonald’s for lunch, she got more than a few stares from folks wondering what famous person would step out of the back door. Alas, there were no passengers. Just a gray-haired grandmother stopping for a burger.

“She drives like a bat out of hell,” said good friend Carol Semple Thompson, who recalled one year during the North & South Women’s Amateur when Bell complained that her AAA towing miles were up by June. Needless to say, even Bell’s newest cars are old. She also owns a London taxi.

“Everything with Mrs. Bell is a grand adventure,” Garner said.

The spirit of a true pioneer.

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