The Sisters behind Golfari at Pine Needles

04 Aug 2021

A trio of Donald Ross courses run by a close-knit family & staff are this golf resort’s secret sauce

By Elizabeth Sugg  »  Photos by Brandon Williams

It’s a family affair at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club. Attend a Golfari week to learn the essentials to enjoy playing the game, and you will meet a half dozen family members who are either descended from or a spouse to someone descended from Peggy Kirk Bell (1921-2016), one of the original LPGA tour players, and her life partner in every way, her husband Warren “Bullet” Bell (1922-1984). And if you sit in on a Tuesday evening fireside conversation between sisters Peggy Bell Miller and Bonnie Bell McGowan during Golfari, you will witness some serious sibling teasing, the jabs that can only hit home with laughter when the punch lines are delivered with as much spice as affection. The family warmth is contagious, and it envelops the three distinct properties that make up “Ross Resorts” – Pine Needles, Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club, and the recently acquired Southern Pines Golf Club.

As the two sisters sit down, Miller jokingly invites McGowan to open up the evening with a quip, “age before beauty”, that receives the classic older sibling eye roll. What unfolds is the charming story of their two athletic parents who were high school sweethearts growing up in Findlay, Ohio. Peggy’s father owned a wholesale grocery that sold everything including sports equipment. Always game to try a new sport, her dad encouraged her at age 17 to go to the warehouse and pull out the new golf clubs that had arrived and give them a try. That went well enough to eventually get Peggy Kirk a scholarship to Rollins College in Florida.

Bullet Bell was a high school sports star yet basketball is what earned him a scholarship to Ohio State until WWII sent him into the military. Post-war, Bell played professional basketball for the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, and then eventually became a sales rep for Spalding sports equipment. At home in Findlay when the two reconnected, the Golfari sisters share that one day Bullet told “Peg” as he called her, a smile in his voice, “If I buy you a golf course, I know you will marry me.” And in 1953 a trip to Pine Needles in Southern Pines became the couple’s destiny. They saw the potential in the Donald Ross course in need of restoring and an army barracks serving as a lodge for guests. Go to Pine Needles today and you will appreciate the legacy the couple built.

A charter member of the LPGA, Peggy continued to play tournaments across the country as her family grew, even becoming a pilot so she could fly and get herself places more efficiently. Miller and McGowan describe sometimes being taken to a golf tournament somewhere, and their mother telling them “I’ll be back in four hours”, drawing laughter in the crowd at what a different day that was. But Pine Needles was in its formative years, and playing golf was a way for Peggy to contribute and keep up their network of friends and players.

Golfari, “a safari of golf”, has been around since the earliest days when Peggy and Bullet Bell bought Pine Needles. With the help of friends, among them many tour players passing through to visit and lend a hand, the couple looked for ways to fill the rooms and make the resort turn into a profitable operation that could sustain a growing family. A brainstorm session with one of Peggy’s longtime friends, Ellen Griffin, one of the founders of the Women’s Professional Golf Association, a forerunner to the LPGA (and for whom the LPGA’s annual teaching award is named, the Ellen Griffin Rolex Award), and the Golfari name and concept were conceived.

In its earliest years Golfari was a weeklong learning session exclusively for women. The logic then was who best to teach women than other women (in 2021 this has obviously evolved), and being an advocate of the women’s game, it was a niche meant for Peggy Kirk Bell. Teaching was a task that Peggy was thrown into, and she grew into the role big time. The genius behind the golf adventure that Griffin and Peggy developed was not only the daily golf lessons with the overnight stays but the evening camaraderie that developed among the Golfari week’s students and teaching staff. The relationships provided the foundation for the friendly enjoyment of a sport that takes a long time to develop any real skill. And it is that positivity that the Bell family carries forth over 60 years later. Pine Needles is not just a place to play golf, it is a destination to learn golf. What can be a frustrating sport to play not only because of the number of clubs to master but also because there is no standardized surface like a basketball court or football field, the core of the golf experience at Pine Needles is to deconstruct the lessons such that it remains a fun, friendly game.

McGowan played college golf at UNC-Chapel Hill before hitting the amateur circuit, eventually returning to Southern Pines to raise a family with her husband Pat McGowan, a PGA Touring Professional and Pine Needle’s Director of Instruction. Peggy Miller played on the University of Alabama’s golf team, and settled in Southern Pines with her husband Kelly Miller, now President of Pine Needles and Mid Pines, in 1984, the year that Bullet Bell died very suddenly. There has always been the balance of family and resort responsibilities that can change on a dime, and it is that legacy all of them share with Peggy and Bullet Bell.

Bonnie McGowan’s godmother we learn at the Tuesday night fireside chat was Babe Zaharias (1911-1956), the Olympic track-and-field star who later took up golf and won 10 major championships. Zaharias was at the White House visiting Dwight Eisenhower, a dedicated golfer who typically shot in the mid-80s, when Bullet Bell called to let her know Peggy had had a baby girl (Ike answered the phone!), and she needed a name so time to head south to see her good friend. Zaharias wanted their daughter to be named “Babe” for her but the two good friends compromised and came up with “Bonnie” instead, a Scottish name for beautiful.

Born four years later, Peggy Miller’s godmother was none other than Patty Berg (1918-2006), a founding member and first president of the LPGA, not to mention a 15-time major winner on tour, still the record. Despite growing up around such legends in sport, the prestige of that seems not to have affected these down-to-earth sisters still teaching lessons and helping run Golfaris. In Miller’s words, “In our upbringing, we were surrounded by people who were the best of the best, but they were friends and family, human beings that loved us and we loved them.”

Maybe the intangible warmth that pervades Pine Needles and Mid Pines, the Ross courses that have been in the Bell family the longest, has memories enough to enfold the rest of us as well.

Keeping the properties current and relevant in the competitive golf and resort business has meant the Bell family taking on a partnership to invest and improve their trio of Donald Ross properties. In 2020 Pine Needles had a longtime dream acquisition come true, the 1906 Ross course previously owned by the Elks Lodge in Southern Pines. Kyle Franz, the Donald Ross restoration expert who buffed and polished Mid Pines in 2013, is now at work bringing the luster back to the Southern Pines Golf Club. These ebbs and flows and improvements are all strategized and handled as a family and among a close-knit partnership and staff. And you will continue to hear tales of their multi-generational history on a Tuesday evening during Golfari.

Pine Needles will host its fourth U.S. Women’s Open in 2022, the only golf course to have had that honor. To learn more about participating and golf instruction, visit

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