When Peggy Kirk Bell first heard of Pinehurst, she knew she had to find a way to play in the great North & South Amateur. And so she showed up without invitation. The rest is golf history.
Peggy Kirk was an aspiring young golfer at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., in the early 1940s. She looked up to the talents of established players like Estelle Lawson Page, Glenna Collett and Maureen Orcutt and followed the amateur golf news in the local papers.
One spring a notice about the Women’s North and South Amateur caught her eye.
“I loved golf and I’d heard that Pinehurst was the golf capital of the world,” she says. “I said, ‘Gosh, I need to go play in that tournament.’”
“I loved golf and I’d heard that Pinehurst was the golf capital of the world.” -Peggy Kirk Bell
So she packed a bag and grabbed her golf clubs and set off northward in her ’41 Packard convertible. Miss Kirk arrived in Pinehurst without mishap, found the country club and presented herself at the tournament desk in the clubhouse.
“I’d like to play in the North and South,” she announced.
“Fine,” said the official. “Can I see your invitation?”
“Invitation?” Peggy repeated. “I’m sorry, gee, I’m just a college kid, I read about it and thought I’d like to play in it.”
“Just a moment,” said the official, who excused himself into a rear office. A moment later, a distinguished looking man with wire-rimmed glasses presented himself.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Richard Tufts, and I’d like to extend an invitation to you to play in the North and South.”
Some 50 years later, Peggy Kirk Bell is almost doubled over with laughter.
“My first trip to Pinehurst, and I crash the party,” she says. “I was soooo green. I just thought it was a tournament, that you paid your five dollars and played. I was so embarrassed I could have died. There wasn’t even an entry fee! I still have the little red billfold with the Pinehurst crest they gave to all the players.”
“My first trip to Pinehurst, and I crash the party.” -Peggy Kirk Bell
It wouldn’t take long for Peggy to establish her credentials as one of the best players in amateur golf and later one of the pioneering members of the fledging LPGA tour. Nineteen forty-nine was her banner year—she won the Palm Beach Championship and the Titleholders, the ladies’ version of the Masters held at Augusta Country Club. Then it was on to Pinehurst in late April for the North and South.
“The women had played on course No. 3 every year,” Peggy says. “It was a good course but it was short. We kept saying we wish they’d put us on the ‘big course’—No. 2. Finally they did in 1949. There was a lot of excitement that year playing on No. 2.”
Peggy bested a field of 64 players to win that North and South, including a 1-up semifinal win over Estelle Page, one of the top players in the game. She then defeated the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, Grace Lenczyk, in the championship match by a 5-and-4 margin. Later she won the Eastern Amateur and that stellar year earned Miss Kirk a place on the 1950 Curtis Cup team.
“We kept saying we wish they’d put us on the ‘big course’—No. 2. Finally they did in 1949. There was a lot of excitement that year playing on No. 2.” And that’s when she won.
“There is nothing that could beat the life on the old amateur golf tour,” Peggy says today. “We played simply because we loved the game, we loved the competition, we loved the camaraderie of the amateur circuit. The only prizes were a silver cup and our picture in the paper. Money, agents, contracts and sponsorships never were a part of it.”
Peggy turned professional after the Curtis Cup and followed the lead of her great pal, Babe Zaharias, who was the sparkplug to get the LPGA up and running. Peggy remembers sitting in hotel rooms with Babe as she negotiated deals for tournaments on the LPGA Tour. They drove from one end of the country to the other, and eventually Peggy learned to fly her own airplane to make travel easier. Zaharias was a showgirl, a talented athlete, an excellent musician and was ultra competitive.
“Babe was the beginning of ladies pro golf,” Peggy says. “She’d get a call from someone wanting her to do an exhibition. She’d say, ‘How about I bring some of my friends and we’ll stage a tournament for you?’ That’s how a lot of our tournaments got started. She was an entertainer and she could hit the ball a mile. Men would ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at one of her tee shots, and she’d turn to them and say, ‘Don’t you wish you could hit it like that?’ They loved it.”
“All I’ve done is play a wonderful game. It’s been a joy and a blessing.” -Peggy Kirk Bell
Another of Peggy’s good friends on the amateur circuit was Ann “Buttons” Cosgrove, daughter of Frank and Maisie Cosgrove, who managed Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club in Southern Pines. After Peggy married hometown sweetheart Warren Bell in 1953, they joined forces with the Cosgroves in leasing Pine Needles Inn & Golf Club, across Midland Road from Mid Pines. Several years later, the Bells bought their partners out and Pine Needles has remained in the Bell family ever since.
Peggy Bell began teaching golf in 1954, found she liked it and was good at it and eventually eased off regular LPGA Tour competition to stay at home, raise her three children and teach golf in private lessons and group schools to Pine Needles guests. She’s won most every award in golf and her stature in the game, as well as Pine Needles possessing an outstanding Donald Ross-designed golf course, were among the reasons the USGA brought its Women’s Open to Pine Needles in 1996, 2001 and 2007.
“For us to have had three Opens on a golf course we bought that had nothing but weeds and scrub oaks right up to the fairway is an amazing story,” Peggy said in 2007. “My husband and I both loved the game and we both wanted to be in our own business. All I’ve done is play a wonderful game. It’s been a joy and a blessing.”
Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst. Follow him on Twitter @LeePaceTweet.