Peggy Kirk Bell didn’t need a golf club to conduct a golf lesson. She could do it anywhere on property at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, the golf resort she owned in Southern Pines, N.C. She wasn’t above walking through the bar, hovering over a student’s plate and repositioning his or her hands around a knife to demonstrate a proper grip — all good-naturedly, of course.
Those who knew Bell, a legendary player and instructor who died in November 2016 at age 95, are full of stories like this. Bell took neither herself nor the game she loved too seriously. Golf is supposed to be fun, after all. That spirit lives on through Golfari, a golf school, of sorts, that Bell founded in the 1960s.
Golfaris are unique to Pine Needles. They are week-long instructional camps with a heavy emphasis on the social aspect of this game. Students learn the fundamentals of golf – everything from grip and posture to verbiage to on-course etiquette – in an environment that encourages them to get to know fellow students, too. Days end with shared meals and cocktails, and once you park your car on property, you never have to leave.
“It’s about the fun and the relationships, and those carry a lot further than learning how to hit a 7-iron,” said Pat McGowan, a former PGA Tour player and longtime Golfari leader.
Bell would have wanted it this way, and McGowan knows that. McGowan is married to Bell’s daughter Bonnie, and has helped the Bell family legacy live on at Pine Needles. He’s one of a number of instructors who work with students when they visit Pine Needles. Both of Bell’s daughters, Bonnie and Peggy Ann, taught with their mother. Former LPGA Tour player Donna Andrews now is instrumental in running the golf academies and Golfaris.
“You don’t replace a Bing Crosby or a Bob Hope or a Peggy Kirk Bell, but the fundamentals stay there, the friendships stay there, the mantras and the mottos stay there,” he said. “We feel like we’re growing and making lifetime golfers and people that learn to love the game, and that was Mrs. Bell’s real goal.”
Julie Garner, head women’s golf coach at Rollins College — Bell’s alma mater — has also been one of those instructors. She calls Bell a mentor in life and golf.
“She was one of the pioneers in women’s golf, as a female teaching golf professional,” Garner said. “I just think she had such a generous heart. Her reach was so long and has gotten so many people involved in the game.”
McGowan guesses that as many as 20,000 women have been influenced through Golfaris. Some students come back every year to experience the camaraderie — in fact, some have been coming back for 30 years.
Golfari instructor Pat McGowan, a former PGA Tour professional and son-in-law to the late Peggy Kirk Bell, gives a putting instruction with the inconic Pine Needles Loge and Golf Club in the background. (Photo: Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club)
Bell’s picture goes up on the last night of each Golfari so that students who might not know her legacy can learn about her. Many people at Pine Needles, McGowan included, still feel her presence on the property. When you spoke to Bell, McGowan remembers, you felt like the most important person in the room. That lives on, too.
“People think that former players want to just teach good players, but we get a bigger kick out of someone who makes a par for the first time than someone who goes from an 8 handicap to a 6 handicap,” McGowan said.
There are five women-only Golfaris each year, and Pine Needles also hosts a co-ed Golfari plus a youth-only Golfari. There are two annual couples events plus 15 three-day golf academies. Introducing people to the game was a huge part of Bell’s legacy, and it lives on in this way.
Every player leaves a Golfari with a practice plan. And while they’re on property, the Donald Ross-designed course is a perfect place to learn. It’s not too punishing, but it’s still a traditionally challenging Ross layout.
“Pine Needles is always among the most women-friendly golf courses,” McGowan said. “You’re not going to lose a lot of golf balls, not a lot of water hazards – it’s fun, it’s right in front of you.”
Blake Norton has been attending Golfaris as a student for 18 years. Norton comes back to improve her golf game, and to see the instructors and fellow students she has come to think of as family.
“This is the vacation I look forward to the most,” she said.
Sept. 3-7 (Monday-Friday). Rates: Lodge, $2,245; Master, $2,145; Deluxe, $2,045.
Feb. 11-15 (Monday-Friday). Rates: Lodge: $2,045; Master, $1,945: Deluxe, $1,845.
April 29-May 3 (Monday-Friday). Rates: Lodge, $2,845; Master, $2,745; Deluxe, $2,645.
May 6-10 (Monday-Friday). Rates: Lodge, $2,845; Master, $2,745; Deluxe, $2,645.
May 25-29 (Saturday-Wednesday). Rates: Lodge, $2,845; Master, $2,745; Deluxe, $2,645.
Sept. 2-6, 2019 (Monday-Friday). Rates: Lodge, $2,245; Master, $2,145; Deluxe, $2,045.
Location: Southern Pines, N.C.
Julie Williams is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who teaches eighth-grade English and coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla.