Peggy Kirk Bell, teacher, major champion, dies at 95

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Peggy Kirk Bell, who made her mark on golf as a major champion, a hall-of-fame teacher and a course owner, died Wednesday. She was 95.

Bell won two of golf’s highest honors: the USGA’s Bob Jones Award and the LPGA’s Patty Berg Award. 

“She’s a pistol,” Cristie Kerr said before the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open. “She is so solid and inspiring and has done so much for women’s golf.”

Bell was still an amateur when she won the 1949 Titleholders Championship, which was then an LPGA major. That year she also won the North and South Women’s Amateur. She was a member of the 1950 U.S. Curtis Cup team before turning pro late that year.

In 1953, she married her high school sweetheart, Warren “Bullet” Bell, who played professional basketball before returning to the business world. The two purchased Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina, in 1953, and their family has operated the venue – which has hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens – ever since.

When Bell shifted her focus to teaching, she became one of the game’s first female instructors. In 2002 she became the first woman inducted into World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame, an honor she couldn’t have conceived of after the first lesson she gave, in 1954. 

In 2014 she recounted the experience to ThePilot.com. 

A woman came into the Pine Needles golf shop looking to take a lesson. Unaccustomed to a female client, Bell’s husband told her, “Go teach her.” 

“I don’t know what to tell her,” Bell said.

“You know more golf than she does,” her husband replied. “Tell her anything.”

The lesson was a disaster.  “I often wonder about that poor woman,” Bell said. “I’m sure she quit golf then and there.”

Fortunately Bell improved as a teacher. She taught both men and women, and conceived and operated “Golfaris” – weeklong safaris into the world of golf - for women, a concept that continues today.

Born on October 28, 1921 in Findlay, Ohio, Margaret Anne “Peggy” Kirk took up golf at age 17. She won three consecutive Ohio Amateurs, the 1949 North and South Women’s Amateur and the 1949 Titleholders Championship. She also was a member of the victorious 1950 U.S. Curtis Cup Team.

During her professional career, Bell became close friends with Babe Didrikson Zaharias. They traveled together and played a lot of golf together, including the last round of Zaharias’ life before she died of cancer at age 45 in 1956. In a “My Shot” interview with Golf Digest, Bell talked about that round:

“Her cancer was back, and she was weak. For the first time I was hitting my drives up with hers. When the round was over she said, "Peg, I have to say, you're a great player." I said, "Why, thank you, Babe. Why are you telling me that only now?" And she said, "Because if I hit the ball that short, I couldn't break 90."

Weary of driving all over the country from tournament to tournament, Bell fly and bought a single-propeller plane, which she flew to LPGA tournaments in the 1950s, around the same time Arnold Palmer was doing the same thing on the men’s tour. After a scary experience flying in a snowstorm in 1959, she sold the plane. The swimming pool at Pine Needles was built with the proceeds.

In 1990 the USGA presented Bell with the Bob Jones Award, given in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. In 2013 the LPGA selected her as winner of its Patty Berg Award, given to an individual who “exemplifies diplomacy, sportsmanship, goodwill and contributions to the game of golf.”