Peggy Kirk Bell’s impact on women’s golf lives on.
Bell, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 95, was a pioneer in promoting women’s golf, a passion she carried throughout her life, including the more than 60 years she was the Grand Lady of Pine Needles.
She still is making an impact on women’s golf, with her legacy and contributions to the game a driving force behind the USGA bringing the U.S. Senior Women’s Open to Pine Needles in May.
The Senior Women’s Open, the newest national championship overseen by the USGA, is bringing its second edition to Pine Needles after its debut at the Chicago Golf Club last year.
Pine Needles not only has a rich history with women’s golf, but also with the USGA. The Donald Ross designed course has been the host for three U.S. Women’s Opens — 1996, 2001, 2007 — with another one slated to return in 2022.
“We looked at the Sandhills — Pine Needles in particular — its connection to Peggy Kirk Bell and the women’s game,” said Matt Sawicki recently. “With such an illustrious connection to the women’s game it made sense that we brought our second Senior Women’s Open here. Everyone (the players) has a fond memory of either this golf course or some interaction with Peggy Kirk Bell and it just reaffirmed our decision to come here.”
Shannon Rouillard and Sawicki, the Senior Women’s Open championship directors, were at Pine Needles recently in preparation for the championship that starts May 16.
It’s not just the legacy of Bell that has brought the USGA back to Moore County over-and-over again in the last 25 years — it’s the community itself.
“I think we have conducted great U.S. championships here —men, women opens, amateurs — that have been so well supported throughout North Carolina, but in particular here in Moore County and the Sandhills,” said Sawicki. “In a market like this it feels like the entire community wraps its arms around the championships. It’s not just the USGA that feels that way, but also the players. That’s why we love coming to this area. Everybody gets behind it.”
Army of Volunteers
Since 1994 the USGA has held 13 national championships in Moore County, including the historic back-to-back Men’s and Women’s Opens in 2014 at Pinehurst No. 2. Starting with the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, the USGA will hold four more championships over the next six years, including the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles in 2022 and the U.S. Men’s Open in 2024 at Pinehurst.
The next championship planned comes just three months after the completion of the Senior Women’s Open when the U.S. Amateur Championship tees off at Pinehurst Resort in August.
“This is definitely an anchor community,” said Sawicki. “We’re so appreciative of the support we receive. Hopefully, we can continue to give back to the community in the way of bringing championships here and the economic impact it creates for the region. The opportunity to be invited back is really special to the USGA.”
Part of the attraction for the USGA is the army of volunteers in the area that embrace the opportunity to make the championships run smoothly.
“You think of the back-to-back Opens we conducted here in 2014 and one of the things we always talked about — certainly there’s the infrastructure, there’s the golf courses — but really it’s that volunteer backbone,” said Sawicki. “We recruited more than 6,000 volunteers (in 2014) and for this event we are looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 to 1,000 volunteers. We’re already halfway there. This summer we’ve got this (Senior Women’s Open) and the U.S. Amateur in this marketplace and we expect to be fully staffed with our volunteer program.
“People here just love golf and they are willing to contribute to the game of golf and that’s not something you find in every community. That’s something that’s really unique to this community. That’s why every championship here has been so successful.”
A History of Success
The USGA wants the Senior Women’s Open to be a success, taking a young event featuring older players and growing it. After all, every one of the championships the USGA conducts started with the first one.
Rouillard knows success depends on the players buying in. She believes they have.
“There is no better voice for us than the players,” she said. “If they are behind it then it will just continue to grow.”
And the voice of the players is one of the unique attractions that the championship offers. Spectators will be able to walk the fairways with the players, to get up close and personal with the competitors.
“I think what’s really neat about our fan experience is the ability to walk the fairways,” said Sawicki. “You’ll get to hear the conversation between a player and her caddie. This group is as engaging a group of professional athletes as you’ll find. They want to engage, they want to interact with the fans.”
Laura Davies will always be a part of history as the first name inscribed on the championship trophy after winning the inaugural event held at Chicago Country Club last year. History is important to the USGA, and the history of this area revolves around golf. It’s sort of a match made in heaven.
“You could easily call this the epicenter of women’s golf,” said Sawicki. “You could make a strong argument that it is the epicenter of golf in this country. It’s a remarkable place. I think from the USGA’s standpoint we’re so appreciative of the history here.”
A history embodied in Peggy Kirk Bell, according to Rouillard.
“The support that the players felt from this community and the tie-in with Peggy Kirk Bell — they have such an affection and affinity for her and her place in women’s golf history,” said Rouillard. “We found that is really important to them. They are going to relish the opportunity to be back here with fond memories of playing in Women’s Opens and back where a legend in women’s golf has staked her claim.”