Bell, Derr Hold Forth on Golf Greats
With equal parts humor, humility and history, two of Moore County’s living legends — Peggy Kirk Bell and John Derr — twirled tales about their lives and their connection to legendary sports figures like Mildred “Babe” Didrickson Zaharias, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones and Annika Sorenstam for a small group gathered Tuesday in the Given Memorial Library and Tufts Archives in Pinehurst.
The first of many topics discussed was Zaharias — one of the greatest female athletes of all time.
Bell, 90, called Zaharias her favorite playing partner, and told of the time she played an exhibition round with Zaharias and Snead, and the ultra-competitive Zaharias challengedSnead to try to out-drive her after she had crushed a ball off the tee.
Snead hit his ball four yards short of Zaharias, Bell said, and then Snead queried Zaharias.
“Babe,” he said, “Where’d you get those balls?”
And as the audience laughed, Bell continued.
“Sam, I got them the same place you did,” Zaharias said, according to Bell, who added that both golfers got their golf balls from Wilson.
She also talked about the time she was discussing baby names with Zaharias, and “Babe” encouraged Bell to name her firstborn after her.
“Mildred?” Bell asked.
“No, Babe Bell. That’ll look great in the press,” Zaharias replied.
The matriarch of Pine Needles Golf Club and Resort, Bell also told of one of her first meetings with Zaharias, who was 10 years her senior.
Bell recalled walking into a locker room and seeing Zaharias sitting at a table.
Zaharias invited Bell to play the card game “gin” with her. Bell said she had never played before but that Zaharias eagerly taught her the game. When the pair finished playing, Bell said Zaharias tallied up the points and determined that Bell owed her $13.50.
Years later, Bell said Zaharias denied the incident ever happened.
“I never did that. I would never do something like that,” was the response Bell said she got from her longtime friend.
“She was a great liar,” Bell said with a smile.
Derr told of the time when he was in Florida watching Babe play in and win a golf tournament. After the win, Derr tried to convince Zaharias to come to New York to do a radio show. Zaharias was hesitant to commit, Derr said, and then their discussions were interruptedwhen she received a phone call.
Zaharias ducked into the clubhouse and returned minutes later to tell Derr that she couldn’t do the show.
“That was George (Zaharias’ husband), and he said he knew I was going to win, and because he knew I was going to win he got me a present, and I want to get home before it goes down,” Derr told the crowd.
He then leaned over to whisper in Bell’s ear to explain the remark, which caused the audience to laugh and groan. She smiled and shook her head as if she wasn’t the least bit surprised.
Derr, 93, asked Bell if there was truth to the story that Babe would position her husband, George, near the greens with a lit cigar. The story was that George would position himself near the pin, and his wife would know where to hit the ball by aiming for the cigar smoke.
Bell said Babe didn’t need the advantage. “She didn’t have to cheat to win,” Bell said. “She was that great.”
Derr offered a few stories about golfing legend Bobby Jones — like the time Derr and a friend played a round against Jones and another man and won $4.
“I spent all of it on beer,” said Derr, a longtime employee of CBS Radio.
Bell, 90, discussed the state of women’s golf.
“It blows my mind how the game has grown,” Bell said.
She also voiced her concern that advances in technology have led to golf balls and golf clubs that allow today’s players to hit the ball much farther than players of her day. She worried aloud that the changes have “made so many great golf courses obsolete.”
She told the crowd she lobbied PGA officials to do something about the problem. Their response was that they would be sued by the manufacturers of the new golf equipment.
Bell’s response was short and to the point.
“So. Let them sue you,” she said.
She also spoke of the differences of playing golf professionally. Back when Bell played, there were only about 12 pro golfers. Bell used to fly herself to tournaments after she purchased a plane for $8,000 at the urging of a friend.
She remembered the conversation she had with her dad the day she bought the plane.
“I called my dad and asked him to put $5,000 in my checking account,” she said. “He asked why and I told him I just bought a plane.”
“But you don’t know how to fly,” he responded.
“OK, be careful.”
She flew for several years until she got caught in a storm, and decided to sell the plane for $8,000.
“Now every time I walk by my pool I salute it because that’s what became of my plane.”
To end the talk, Bell spoke of the time she allowed Annika Sorenstam to stay at her home while the young golfer played in her first North and South golf tournament at Pinehurst.
Bell gave Sorenstam a key to the house, a room to stay in and a car to drive, but she had a little trouble with the name of the Swedish golfer who would go on to become one of the all-time greats.
“I had never heard Annika before, so I called her Heineken,” Bell said.
More like this story