Peggy Kirk Bell: LPGA Pioneer


As I study the famous names of golf history, I run across the name of Peggy Kirk Bell wherever I turn. During the past few months, it got to the point where I couldn’t turn the page without seeing the name of Peggy Kirk Bell. Always on the way to investigate something or someone else, I nevertheless reminded myself that, one of these days, I was going to look her up.  She must be important, I thought. Her name has a ring to it, as if to say, “If you don’t know about Peggy Kirk Bell, you just think that you’re up on your LPGA history.” That hunch was right. Even though much of her tournament golf was played before the establishment of the LPGA, Bell was one of the central pillars of women’s golf today, a charter member of the modern tour. She must be included in the conversation whenever that era is discussed.

 
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Looking back, perhaps I was too much of a statistic hound as I searched for interesting people and events associated with women’s golf. Peggy Kirk Bell, born in 1921 (Findlay Ohio), didn’t enter the tour until 1950. Her record of LPGA wins totaled…1. Her career earnings from the tour totaled…$257.00 – with other events, about $475.00, not counting the $1,000 Janet Olsen Hole-In-One Award for an ace in the ’65 U.S. Women’s Open. Her one victory was a major, the Titleholders Tournament of 1949, played while she was still an amateur. In all, she played only five events on tour. A 20% win average – not bad.

Bell came out of a spectacular amateur career (which is pretty much all that existed back then), winning the Ohio Amateur three times, the North and South Amateur at Pinehurst, the Eastern Amateur, too many events in Florida to count, playing on the Curtis Cup Team and the ’51 Weathervane International Team – and those achievements form the tip of the iceberg. Bell was awarded the Bob Jones Trophy, named the First Lady of Golf and the LPGA Teacher of the Year, won the Richardson Award and the Joe Groffis Award. She wrote for Golf Magazine, and authored “Women’s Way to Better Golf” in ’61.

 Bell, a witty and engaging conversationalist, was particularly befuddled by receiving a teaching award, and recounted the first lesson she ever taught. Apparently, her student failed to make contact for a solid two hours, and begged to go home. Feisty and self-motivated, she was not a limelight hound. At a tour exhibition, she hit a lengthy series of shanks before an official jovially remarked that perhaps she’d had enough. Bell replied in no uncertain terms that she, indeed, had enough and exited the scene. Tired of driving from tournament to tournament, she took flying lessons and bought her own plane for $8,000. Stranded aloft in a snowstorm, she promised her maker that if He’d let her down gently, she’d sell the plane. The next week, the plane was gone, and the swimming pool went in.

With her late husband Warren, and with the help of PGA star Julius Boros, she purchased the Pine Needles Resort and the course across the road, bringing them to national prominence. She established an enormous Girl’s Golf Tour , a network of elaborate tournaments and training opportunities, including a series of schools called “Golfaris.”

Turning the page again, I thought, “She did all that?” Reading on, I realized that she’s still doing it.  Amid photographs of Bell playing with all the famous men and women of her era, the tribute at Pine Needles was held to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. She’s still got it going upstairs, reminding us all of how little familiarity she has with the number 90, especially on the golf course where she’d never consider being associated with such a number.

So, I finally satisfied my curiosity about Peggy Kirk Bell, but I wish I’d gotten to it sooner. She serves as a reminder that in our age of huge tours and paychecks, the way of the amateur, supremely important in those days, still is. The paychecks didn’t make the game what it was then – and they still don’t. Peggy Kirk Bell loved the game. She loved to play it, to be around it, and to help it along by making room for young people to play their best. Somewhere in all the hoopla, that’s still what makes the game what it is.

 

 

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