Three summers ago, I took a solo road trip to the American heartland to see a few places on the golf atlas that I’d never visited. It was part of research for a new book called “The Range Bucket List” that’s essentially my love poem to the game of golf.
But it was also a true journey of the heart.
One of my destinations was Findlay, Ohio, the hometown of Peggy Kirk Bell. Or as I long ago took to calling her, the Arnold Palmer of Women’s Golf.
I came by my nickname for Dame Peggy via another legend of women’s golf named Glenna Vare. Thirty years ago I paid a call on Dame Glenna Collett Vare at her summer home in Narragansett, Rhode Island, hoping she would permit me to caddie for her at her approaching 69th straight Point Judith Invitational. During her heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, Glenna Collett captured six U.S. Women’s Amateur Championships, plus the Canadian and French Amateurs as well. Some wag in the sporting press eventually called her the “Female Bobby Jones,” others the “Queen of American Golf.”
Being old school and 83 years old, Dame Glenna would have none of me caddying for her but put me to work instead chopping up vegetables for soup she was making. It was only when she invited me to sit for a spell on her veranda and demanded to know where I hailed from that my luck dramatically changed.
When I mentioned that I was from Greensboro but played my first round ever on a regulation golf course at Mid Pines Golf Club in 1966, Dame Glenna let down her guard and actually smiled.
“So you must know Peggy Kirk Bell,” she said.
I said that I’d only met Mrs. Bell once but certainly knew of her influence on the game as an accomplished teacher and early star of the LPGA Tour.
“That’s just the half of it, dear boy. I’d say no one has done more to promote women’s golf than Peggy Kirk Bell,” said Miss Glenna. “The game owes her more than you can imagine.”
The Accomplished Peggy Kirk
A ferocious thunderstorm was brewing as I rolled into Findlay three summers ago in search of Peggy Kirk’s childhood. She grew up there, daughter of a successful grocer, hoping to parlay her love of all sports into a career teaching physical education to women — until her father purchased a friend’s membership at the Findlay Country Club and suggested to his strong-willed daughter that she take up golf.
By the end of high school, Peggy Kirk was one of Ohio’s most promising amateurs, taking herself off to Rollins College in Florida where she could play golf year-round. Her first trip to Pinehurst came during her junior year when she learned about the prestigious North and South Amateur Championship. She tossed her clubs into the Packard her father sent her off to school with and drove straight to Pinehurst where she hustled straight to the registration table to pay her entry fee.
The official on duty explained there was no official fee — the tournament was an invitational event.
“I wanted to crawl under the rug,” Peggy remembered decades later. “I’d crashed the party uninvited.”
The official’s name was Richard Tufts. He quickly arranged for Miss Kirk to be “officially extended an invitation” and became a major force in her life.
It was a kindness that changed her life — and, arguably, golf in America. “I was so taken with the Sandhills, I felt right at home here,” she told me at lunch a few days before I set off in search of her childhood in Findlay. “I had this strange feeling I would someday actually live here.”
At that point, Peggy Kirk’s stated ambition was to graduate from college, “find a decent job teaching physical education, followed by a good husband, children and a life playing amateur golf,” she added. “Funny how it all strangely worked out.”
A year later, in 1944, when her friends Hope Seignious and Ellen Griffin formed the first professional golf organization for women, the Women’s Professional Golf Association, based in Greensboro, Peggy Kirk’s budding friendships with Patty Berg, Betty Jameson and especially Babe Zaharias caused her to seriously rethink her career goals.
At the WPGA’s second national Open Championship at Starmount Forest in Greensboro, amateur Peggy Kirk finished 11 strokes behind the winner, Betty Jamieson. But with prestigious wins like the Titleholders and North and South already under her belt, Peg’s eyes were firmly on being selected to play on the Curtis Cup team of 1948, the biennial team competition between America’s top female amateur players and their counterparts from Britain and Ireland. She narrowly missed making that squad but did so two years later when the American side was captained by none other than Glenna Collett Vare, the grand old lady of American golf — for whom the LPGA would eventually name its annual award for the lowest scoring average on tour for the year.
To Peg Kirk, Dame Glenna was an icon and perfect role model. “She had accomplished everything I dreamed about: a family, a career, a great life playing golf,” she remembered that day at lunch before I went off to see her hometown.
Among other things, Glenna Vare, sensationally superstitious, was also skilled at finding four-leaf clovers. She often went hunting for one prior to matches.
During her final Curtis Cup singles match in 1950, one down to a talented Brit named Jeanne Bisgood, captain Glenna approached Peggy on the 16th hole and presented her a four-leaf clover. Young Peg squared the match on the 17th and won on the final hole. The Americans won in a romp and that autumn Peggy Kirk Bell turned professional.
Last Saturday, Mrs. Bell’s daughter Peggy Ann and her husband Kelly Miller, were in her house going through some items when they came across a four-leaf clover wrapped in some stationery and tucked away in her closet.
“We could only assume, based on the age of the stationery, that this was the four-leaf clover from Glenna,” Kelly Miller said. “We placed it in her pocket to take with her on her journey, though she never really needed any luck.”
Taking Root in the Sandhills
Like her hero Glenna Vare, Peggy Kirk had a taste for fast cars and speed. Her time on the fledgling LPGA Tour was rewarding if not overly successful, yet her close friendships with other pioneers of the Tour would have an important effect on women’s golf in America. After marriage to retired professional basketballer Warren “Bullet” Bell, she was among the first to purchase an airplane in order to chase her golf dreams, ala Arnold Palmer. She flew a single-engine Cessna all over the country for a time before selling some family land back in Findlay and cashing in Bullet Bell’s insurance policy to become part-owners of long-idle Pine Needles Golf Club in Southern Pines, where a young Glenna Collett once sold real estate for the Tufts family in the mid 1920s.
The Bells restored the golf course and charged, Peg recalled with a laugh, “ a dollar fifty per round of golf. The next summer, Bullett raised the green fee to two dollars and I was sure people would stop coming.”
But they didn’t. In 1958, after buying out their partners and funding the construction of a rustic lodge Bullet deemed essential to the resort’s future — using a loan quietly arranged by Richard Tufts — the Bells expanded into a full-fledged golf resort.
A who’s who of the golf world quickly took notice, including Arnold and Winnie Palmer, who began periodically dropping in to visit and were so impressed by the intimacy and charm of Pine Needles, they modeled their renovation of Bay Hill Lodge in Orlando on it.
With her LPGA career on the wane and motherhood taking center stage, Peg Bell turned to her greatest gift — a love of teaching people, particularly women, to play golf. With three small children and a resort to run, she sold her airplane and took her longtime friend Ellen Griffin’s suggestion to open the nation’s first teaching academy exclusively for women.
“Ellen playfully named them ‘Golfaris’ and the name stuck,” Peggy remembered.
Their first ad for the school appeared in Golf World magazine, announcing three nights and four days of personal instruction for $105. Bell and Griffin also sent out mimeographed fliers to every club in North Carolina. “We were terrified nobody would show up. But 53 women did. You can’t believe the relief we felt! That was really the beginning of everything.”
In the 1980s, the Bells added a men’s school run by Peggy’s son-in-law Pat McGowan, a former Tour player, and daughter Bonnie.
In 1989, owing to her pioneering work over decades of promoting women’s golf and teaching generations of women to play, Peggy Kirk Bell was presented the Ellen Griffin Rolex Award, the highest honor given by the LPGA Teaching and Club Division. Just one year later, the USGA presented her its coveted Bob Jones Award for her long service to the game.
Six years after that, Pine Needles hosted the first of three U.S. Women’s Opens — won by Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Christi Kerr, respectively — over the next two decades. Not surprisingly, among many LPGA Tour players, Pine Needles is regarded as one of the sacred grounds of the game, something of a shrine to women’s golf.
‘An American Original’
As my wife Wendy and I were sitting in our usual pew yesterday at Dame Peg’s moving memorial service at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church, I couldn’t help but think what a remarkably full and rewarding life this spirited girl from smalltown Ohio had fashioned from the pure love of a game and people — and how bittersweet and oddly appropriate that she should pass on just weeks after another smalltown hero named Arnold Palmer had a similar memorial service in Latrobe.
Some years ago, Mrs. Bell (though we were friends and I belong to her Pine Needles club, I never quite worked up the nerve to call her Peggy to her face) once gave me a firm and slightly disapproving look worthy of Dame Glenna Vare. I had casually mentioned to her that I thought she was the “Arnold Palmer of women’s golf.”
But after I explained the uncanny similarities — like Arnold she was a tireless and gifted ambassador of the game, greeted everyone she met like an old friend, was devoted to family and loved nothing better than a good frisky joke — Dame Peggy softened and smiled.
“I’m flattered you would call me that,” she said with a roguish twinkle. “But better not tell Arnold that’s he’s the Peggy Kirk Bell of men’s golf.”
When I told Arnold this, he simply smiled and nodded. “She was an American original,” said the King.
“A long life might be good enough,” an aging Ben Franklin was supposed to have said. “But a good life is long enough.”
Dame Peggy Bell and Arnold Palmer had both.
And those of us who love them, will never be the same.