Peggy Kirk Bell, instruction pioneer and gallery favorite, joins Golf Hall of Fame in 2019

PGA of America

Peggy Kirk Bell, instruction pioneer and gallery favorite, joins Golf Hall of Fame in 2019

LPGA Tour

Peggy Kirk Bell, instruction pioneer and gallery favorite, joins Golf Hall of Fame in 2019

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Peggy Kirk Bell would’ve fretted over her World Golf Hall of Fame speech. She was that way with all her speeches. She’d get every family member to write one, her friends, even her minister. She’d have eight or nine speeches to pore over, and then when it was showtime she’d get up there and wing it.

Bonnie McGowan said her mom, winner of the USGA’s Bob Jones Award and a member of seven halls of fame, soon to be eight, never thought she deserved recognition for simply doing what she loved.

That was Peggy.

Humble and warm and faithful. A charter member of the LPGA, a pioneer in golf instruction, the first woman ever to fly her own airplane to tournaments and the owner of one of the best golf retreats in America – Mrs. Bell, who died in 2016 at the age of 95, was one of the game’s great treasures.

“To me, golf is tradition,” said Nancy Lopez, “and I think she was tradition.  Golf is character, and I think she had great character. Golf is someone that gives back. I just think those are the kinds of people you want in the Hall of Fame, not just tournament winners, because a lot of tournament winners don’t have those characteristics.”

Bell joins Retief Goosen, Billy Payne, Jan Stephenson and Dennis Walters as the Class of 2019. The ceremony takes place June 10 at the Sunset Center in Carmel-By-The-Sea, Calif., during the week of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

For many in the golf world, Bell’s inclusion is long overdue.

While gathering memorabilia for her mom’s World Golf Hall of Fame display, Bonnie came across old articles and letters she’d never seen.

“I was just stunned with how they wrote about her,” Bonnie said over breakfast at Pine Needles Lodge. “The smiling Peggy, the likeable, the kind, the fun. She was the favorite, maybe not picked to be the favorite to win, but she was the favorite of the gallery.”

She wasn’t the show; that honor belonged to close friend Babe Zaharias. She just liked the people.

Always a top athlete

Bell’s father joined Findlay (Ohio) Country Club the summer after her senior year of high school. She’d been voted the school’s best athlete, but golf was new to the family. Bell went to the storage room of her father’s sporting goods store and asked the attendant for “some of those sticks on the wall.” He also gave her three golf balls.

“I went out with my three balls and I never made it to the first green,” she said during an interview at her namesake college tournament, Rollins’
Peggy Kirk Bell Invitational, some years ago. She had sliced all three into the woods.

Bell marched into 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 practiced every day. Bell went back to her father’s storage room and asked for the entire box of golf balls.

Everyone knew not to bother Peggy Kirk Bell on Sunday afternoons during NFL season. She was a devoted Cowboys fan until Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry. She wrote Jones a letter and never supported the Cowboys again. (2009 File Photo)

Two years later Bell 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 to shape shots at Berg’s exhibition. It was like that throughout Bell’s golfing life – so many of the game’s icons drawn to a woman whose passion was contagious. Arnold and Winnie, Jack and Barbara, Alice and Pete, Bing and Bob. The Babe was Bonnie’s godmother.

Bell even won a women’s major, the 1949 Titleholders Championship, while still an amateur, the thrill of her life coming the following year when she represented the U.S. at the Curtis Cup.

“I don’t think she would’ve ever turned pro had Babe not said, ‘Peg, we’re starting something here, and you need to be in on the beginning,’ ” said Bonnie of the start of the LPGA in 1950.

“She had a swing that lasted a lifetime,” said Pat McGowan, who first stayed at Pine Needles while in town for PGA Tour qualifying school and
later married Bonnie. “It was seamless, it was beautiful.”

Bell got her pilot’s license when driving to tournaments grew tiresome, calling her father to say, “Put money in my account, I’m gonna buy a plane.”

‘You know more than she does’

In one of those letters Bonnie dug up, her father, Warren “Bullet” Bell, wrote, “I know if I buy a golf course, you’ll marry me.”

Nicknamed “Bullet” for his speed in the pool, Warren played basketball for the Fort Wayne Pistons, now Detroit. They wed in 1953 and purchased Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C., that same year. In 1994 the Bell family bought Mid Pines, another Donald Ross design across the street.

It was Bullet who convinced Peggy to give her first lesson. She was hesitant, telling her husband she was a player and not a teacher.

“Well, you know more than she does,” Bullet said, “go tell her something  you know.”

Peggy told the woman everything she knew, and two hours later the woman asked if they could quit.

Like nearly everything else in life, the mother of three quickly became a natural at teaching. Her legendary “Golfari” camps have been around over 50 years. More than 20,000 women have attended them.

She was a champion of the beginners as much as she was the best in the world, with Pine Needles set to host a record fourth U.S. Women’s Open in 2022, its seventh USGA championship overall. Helen Alfredsson won the second U.S. Senior Women’s Open there last month.

Offering up-and-comers a place to stay was commonplace for the Bells. In the summer of 1992, she extended an invitation to a young Swedish amateur named Annika Sorenstam. Sorenstam bonded quickly with Bell, who called her “Heineken” because she couldn’t pronounce Annika’s name.

Grandson Blair Miller, now the clubhouse manager at Mid Pines, said every family holiday was celebrated at grandma’s house off the 18th fairway at Pine Needles.

Peggy Kirk Bell, left, and Babe Zaharias were two of the early and most important figures in the development and history of women’s golf. (Associated Press)

“She had the biggest L-shaped couch I’ve ever seen,” he said. “She had a huge fireplace and this projector TV – she had a big-screen before anyone had a big-screen. She was either watching sports or ‘Walker, Texas Ranger.’ ”

Everyone knew not to bother Mrs. Bell on Sunday afternoons during NFL season. She was a devoted Cowboys fan until Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry. She wrote Jones a letter and never supported the Cowboys again.

Other interests included collecting cars. She had nine of them late in life, including a London taxi and a limousine.

No matter what she was up to though, golf was never far from her mind.

“She would literally jump in that ’64 Lincoln at halftime and go ripping across 18,” said Pat McGowan, “ripping across No. 1 and come down with a big hook slide, jump out with her 7-iron, hit about 10 balls and boom, back up to the house.”

Mrs. Bell never stopped learning. And the game of golf, as a result, grew right along with her. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the June 2019 issue of Golfweek.)

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