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My Shot: Peggy Kirk Bell

Peggy Kirk Bell

The U.S. Women's Open comes to Peggy Kirk Bell's Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club June 28-July 1 in Southern Pines, N.C.

Peter Gregoire

July 2007
As the U.S. Women's open returns to Pine Needles, we check in with the owner, who's still searching for distance at 85.

The U.S. Women's Open coming up at Pine Needles will be our third in just over a decade. When we had our first, in 1996, one thing I heard from the male fans was, "I can't really relate to how the men pros hit the ball, but I can with the women. They hit it about as far as I do." You don't hear too many men say that anymore. The women are so strong and athletic, and the equipment has come so far, that today there's no such thing as a professional golfer average fans can compare themselves to.

Ben Hogan discovered his "secret" well before his car accident in 1949. In 1947, I visited Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth and watched him practice. He hit from the right side of the practice range, along a tree line. Every shot he hit faded, and by fade, I mean about six feet. If he faded it too much, it would hit those trees, so it was clear what he was up to. I talked to him briefly during a break—he was out there all day—and he told me, "I'm changing my swing. I've been losing too many tournaments on the last couple of holes because I hook." He obviously had figured out how to stop hooking sometime in the late 1940s.

Too many new players hold the club too far into the palm of the left hand, which costs them a lot of control, hand speed and feel. Here's a tip for the correct left-hand grip: Place the club at your side and grasp the handle as though you were lifting a suitcase. When you grip a suitcase handle, you instinctively place it along the base of your fingers, no matter how heavy it is. Now just meld your right hand onto the left, the handle also running along the fingers of the right hand. Simple.

We've run Pine Needles for 55 years now. The resort has been very successful, and having the U.S. Women's Open here has helped. But the key to running a good resort is the same as for any other business: You've got to be there. You've got to come to work every day. Keep everything right in front of you. If you're running a company from another city or coming in to check up once every other week, your list of potential problems is a lot bigger.

My dad lived to be 93 and made a lot of money in the wholesale grocery business in Findlay, Ohio. Financially, we were comfortable, but he made us work. He paid me 10 cents an hour, but the other two women got 20 cents an hour. When I asked him why, he said, "Because you're the boss' daughter." I grew up believing it's important to teach kids to work early on. If you start them young, they'll learn to enjoy work. They'll like the satisfaction they get, and of course, all kids like money.

I'm pretty tight with a dollar. My kids say, "Mother, come on, spend some money on yourself." But shopping to me is very boring, and it pains me to spend for anything other than the things I really need. All I've ever wanted is a better golf swing. Even when I go out to eat, I'm mindful of a bargain. My meal of choice: the Double Decker at Taco Bell. It's soft on the outside, crispy on the inside and costs $1.19. If you want to hit the drive-up window at Taco Bell, I'm buying.

I traveled a great deal with Babe Didrikson Zaharias. For a long time we played golf practically every day together, and the last time we played, in 1956, was the last round of her life. 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."

Near the end of Babe's life, I visited her in the hospital. She finished a cigarette, and as she stubbed it out she motioned toward an empty Coke bottle sitting on a dresser across from the foot of her bed. "Bet I can toss this cigarette into the Coke bottle," she said, and flipped the cigarette butt toward the bottle. The butt bounced off a mirror and fell into the bottle. It was amazing, but Babe was always doing stuff like that. She loved to try little stunts, things that were almost impossible. She didn't always pull them off, of course, but when she did, people were just amazed, and of course it delighted her.

I turned pro late in 1950. Prize money was so tight in the early years of the LPGA Tour. I remember a total purse would typically be $3,000. We earned money however we could, through endorsements, exhibitions, whatever. I'll always remember the World Championship played at Tam O'Shanter. The founder and sponsor, George S. May, had sympathy for players who could use some extra cash. One day I came to the first tee and Mr. May said, "Well, Peggy, what do you think you'll shoot today?" I said, "I feel I have a 78 in me today." He said, "If you can beat that, I'll give you $100." I beat the score, went to his office and he peeled off a $100 bill. He did that sort of thing for many players, many times. He was a very good man.

Driving all around the country playing the tour wore me down. You could put 40,000 miles a year on your car, easy. So I learned to fly and bought my own plane for $8,000. This was the way to go, but I had some close calls. In 1959, I was flying from Ohio back to Southern Pines and flew into a snowstorm. I couldn't see anywhere but straight down and was relying on railroad tracks for navigation. We had two little girls at home, and I was terrified I'd never see them, or my husband, Bullet, again. I prayed, "God, if you get me down safely, I promise I'll sell this plane." Finally I saw an open field below my left wing and did a fast U-turn and got the plane down. I sold the plane—we built the swimming pool at Pine Needles with the proceeds—and I never was a pilot again. Every time I walk by the pool, I think of that plane.

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July 28, 2014

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