There can’t be too many people who’d lend a classic Cadillac to someone they’d only just met, then quietly melt away when said someone, concentrating on not hitting the tree behind the car, reversed and swung the long front nose into a tree in front….The inept driver was me, on my first visit to America and the generous, kind-hearted, thoughtful and tolerant owner of the car was Peggy Kirk Bell, who has died at the age of 95.
A good golfer who played in the Curtis Cup in 1950, she became a founder member of the LPGA and in true pioneering style flew herself all over the country, playing and promoting. She played fewer tournaments after she married and started a family but she had a degree in education and put it to good use. Peggy taught thousands of people over the years, many at the famous Golfaris she and her husband Bullet, who had played basketball professionally, established at Pine Needles Lodge and Country [now Golf] Club in Southern Pines, North Carolina, next door to Pinehurst. The dynamic couple and their family built Pine Needles into a venue fit for the US Women’s Open and Annika Sorenstam won the first championship there in 1996; Karrie Webb won in 2001 and Cristie Kerr in 2007.
It was at the Espirito Santo, the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship, at Pinehurst in 1980 that I first met Peggy and Bullet, who was to die all too young in 1984. Thanks to the good offices of Maureen Garrett, England golf’s very own force of nature and forger of friendships, I found myself installed at Pine Needles and furnished with the sporty Cadillac. I’ve never forgotten the Bells’ kindness and generosity and my Maureen, who played in that WATC, and I send our condolences to Peggy’s family and friends.
I met my husband Dai at Pinehurst that year and we played our first round of golf together at Pine Needles. Despite the fact that I lost the match, shanking my approach to the 18th from a perfect position just short of the green, it and Mid Pines, another wonderfully playable Donald Ross course that the Bell family took over and restored, remain among my favourite courses anywhere.
Over the years Peggy won more awards than you could shake a club at, including the United States Golf Association’s Bob Jones Award (for distinguished sportsmanship and service to the game); the PGA of America’s First Lady of Golf; LPGA Teacher of the Year; and the Golf Writers Association of America’s William D. Richardson Award (for outstanding contributions to golf). There are many more on the list and she was also a member of seven Halls of Fame! It’s a measure of the woman and the influence she had that she was so respected and, most importantly, loved.
To find out more about Peggy and her remarkable life, seek out Liz Kahn’s book The LPGA: The Unauthorized Version and the late Rhonda Glenn’s The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf. Peggy also wrote an autobiography (with Lee Pace) called The Gift of Golf, published in 2001. In it she summed up the lifelong appeal of the game quite simply: “I found it more of a challenge than any sport I’d tried.”
Way back in 1966, Peggy wrote A Woman’s Way To Better Golf with Jerry Claussen, foreword by the great Patty Berg, and it’s still a sound, unflashy introduction to the game. The first chapter is called Anyone for Golf? and starts: “That has a nice ring to it! Just saying it makes me feel relaxed and wholesome. Now you try it.
“Sort of makes you feel carefree, doesn’t it?
“Yes, golf is really a fun game. That is it can be fun if you play for enjoyment rather than take it to heart every time you miss a shot……Take my word for it, it’s a lot of fun…no matter how well you play.”
The reasons for playing golf haven’t changed: “You’re going to find that golf has the unique ingredients of fresh air, exercise and social contacts. As a woman, what more could you ask for?”
Peggy tells the story of a friend who took up the game because she didn’t want to be a golf widow. She explained: “When I started going out with my husband, I found out that he was a real golf nut. But, as it turned out, I loved him anyway and wanted to marry him. I knew that the only way I would ever see much of him would be if I took up golf. So now he waves to me on the course and I wave back. He knows where I am and I know where he is.”
There was nothing complicated about Peggy’s teaching. She had the skilled teacher’s way of distilling things down to the essence and making learning a pleasure not a chore. She made the seemingly unattainable – an effective golf swing – seem attainable. “Actually learning how to play golf is really very simple,” she wrote. “If you can make a bed, clean your house or push a grocery cart in the supermarket, you have the necessary physical qualities for playing golf.” That lets most of us in, no excuses.
Peggy was passionate about golf and its benefits: “When I am on a golf course, I can put my problems aside. I find that when I go home, I’m refreshed and ready to meet my responsibilities with renewed energy. I personally believe that I am a better wife and mother because of it.”
I’ve picked out one piece of advice that should still benefit all of us, not least because it involves Peggy’s great pal (mind you, she had lots of those) Babe Zaharias, Olympian, golfer, showwoman supreme. It’s about temperament and still as important and relevant today as it ever was. At least one of this year’s major winners would do well to take it to heart!
Peggy wrote: “You’ll never play good golf unless you control yourself. That’s one thing golf will do for you, if you need it: make you humble. It’s terrific mental discipline not to show your anger when you fluff an easy shot.
“The late, great Mildred ‘Babe’ Zaharias, the queen of all women golfers when I was playing a lot of tournaments, straightened out my attitude in one unforgettable sentence. We were playing together in a pro-amateur event in about 1948. I threw a club as I missed an iron shot and Babe cut me down with: ‘Who do you think you are? So great that you should never miss a shot?’ I reformed right then and there.” WATCH YOUR TEMPER.
RIP PKB. Thanks for the fun.