Golf truly is a game for life. Whether it’s professionals, top amateurs or recreational players, legends of the game remain on the stage long after athletes in most other sports are done dancing. The four USGA championships specifically for senior players celebrate this longevity, with the U.S. Senior Women’s Open the newcomer to the quartet.
And when the second edition of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open begins May 16 at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, it will roar into Southern Pines, N.C., off a debut at Chicago Golf Club that was a success by all standards, including its winner. Laura Davies, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, added the inaugural title to the U.S. Women’s Open she won in 1987, a key event in launching the globalization of women’s golf.
“It’s just one of those great things I’ll always have,” said Davies, looking back on the 10-stroke victory last year that she closed with a brilliant 66-68. “No one else can be the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open champion. I did it and I did it in style. I hit the ball as well as I ever have in my life from tee to green.”
That’s quite a statement from a woman with more than 80 victories. And if Davies was the perfect link from the past to this new event, in Pine Needles the championship links to another key figure in the growth of the game – Peggy Kirk Bell. Kirk Bell, who died in 2016 at 95, will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on June 10 during U.S. Open week at Pebble Beach. Part of her legacy was being the owner of Pine Needles.
History hangs heavy on the sand hills of Southern Pines, with Kirk Bell and Pine Needles a big part of it. The Donald Ross design has played host to the U.S. Women’s Open three times, producing as champions two Hall of Famers and a third who is compiling what could be Hall of Fame credentials.
In 1996, Annika Sorenstam won the second of her three U.S. Women’s Open titles, hitting 51 of 56 fairways in a six-stroke romp. Karrie Webb became the most recent of the seven women to win the championship twice in a row in 2001. And in 2007, Cristie Kerr, who has 20 LPGA victories, picked up the first of her two LPGA major titles.
“I almost didn’t recognize this place from 2007,” Davies said earlier this year at Pine Needles about the 2017 restoration work by Kyle Franz that revived its Donald Ross roots. “They’ve taken it back to what it used to be like,” she said. “I’ll say this, you better get your short game ready.”
Kirk Bell, a top amateur at Rollins College, was a pioneer in several areas. She was on the victorious U.S. Curtis Cup team in 1950, captured the Ohio Women’s Amateur three times and won the North and South Women’s Amateur and the Titleholders in 1949, the year before the LPGA was founded.
But in addition to being an early member of the LPGA, Kirk Bell was also a prominent instructor and one of the first women involved in the business of golf. She and her husband, Warren Bell, who died in 1984, bought Pine Needles and later purchased the nearby Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club.
Kirk Bell helped developed the concept of "Golfaris," golf instruction taught by women for women and later added Youth Golfaris to get juniors involved. Because of her vast contributions, Kirk Bell was given the Bob Jones Award in 1990, the highest honor bestowed by the USGA.
Always a sports enthusiast, she first wanted to teach physical education, but golf won her over. "I found it more of a challenge than any sport I'd tried," she said in "The Gift of Golf," her biography. "You simply couldn't haul off and slam the ball like you would a softball. It took dexterity, but you had to apply it properly. Power was nothing without timing in golf."
The synchronicity of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open landing at Pine Needles the same year Kirk Bell enters the World Golf Hall of Fame displays the unique ability of this event to celebrate the past while showcasing the present. Even the feel of the championship has an old-time intimacy. The only gallery ropes are around the tee boxes and greens, inviting fans to walk the fairways with the legends of the game.
Literally, history will be everywhere at Pine Needles. Six of the women in the 120-player field are in the World Golf Hall of Fame – Amy Alcott, JoAnne Carner, Juli Inkster, Hollis Stacy, Jan Stephenson, who will also be inducted this year at Pebble Beach, and Davies. They have a combined 23 USGA titles to their names.
And Carner, 80, who last year shot her age in the first round, has eight career USGA titles, trailing only Tiger Woods and Bob Jones by one, while another competitor, Ellen Port, has seven. And Carner joins Carol Semple Thompson, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Woods as the only winners of three different USGA championships.
While Dame Laura is the reigning queen, the entire top 10 from last year is on hand to challenge her, including Inkster, Trish Johnson, Danielle Ammaccapane, Yuko Saito, Helen Alfredsson and Liselotte Neumann. Among the newcomers is Wendy Doolan, who turned 50 in December and has five worldwide pro victories.
“I want to keep those other ladies off it for a few years, making my name the only one on it,” Davies said about the championship trophy. “But everyone in the field wants it.”
In Pine Needles, the U.S. Senior Women’s Open has an historic venue. And among the 120 competitors are literally pages from the history of golf. The stage is set, now it’s time to dance.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.