U.S. Women’s Open has Pine Needles Again in Golf Spotlight

07 Apr 2022

Top 156 women golfers will be competing

By Ray Linville

All eyes will be on the Sandhills in a few weeks when the U.S. Golf Association brings the 77th U.S. Women’s Open Championship to Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines. With a field size of 156, the ultimate test in women’s golf will be held June 2-5 with practice rounds May 31 and June 1.

“We are thrilled to bring another U.S. Women’s Open to one of the most respected courses in the United States,” says Stuart Francis, chair of the USGA Championship Committee.

This event is the seventh USGA championship contested at Pine Needles. Most recently, it hosted the second U.S. Senior Women’s Open Championship in 2019. The Women’s Open in June is the fourth time, a record, that it has been played at Pine Needles.

Restoring a Classic Course

Designed by legendary course architect Donald Ross and opened in 1928, the course was renovated in 2004 by John Fought, himself a former U.S. Amateur Champion and two-time winner on the PGA Tour.

With the aid of vintage aerial photos, Fought restored the greens and bunkers to their original forms. Keenly aware that restoring a classic course requires that an architect avoid imposing his own views, he says: “My job was trying to figure out exactly what Mr. Ross was trying to do.”

So impressive is Fought’s work that Loren Rubenstein, a leading golf writer, states: “Fought has brought Pine Needles back in so many ways, while making it relevant for today’s golfer.”

Before Pine Needles hosted the Senior Women’s Open in 2019, renowned course architect Kyle Franz led a restoration project to rebuild greens and restore bunkers to improve hole locations. Incidentally, Franz played a key role in helping Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw with the highly-profiled restoration of Pinehurst No. 2 before the historic 2014 U.S Men’s and Women’s Opens.

Now Pine Needles extends more than 7,000 yards. Each rolling hill and fairway bunker has been reimagined to reflect the challenges that Ross envisioned nearly a century ago.

The fourth championship at Pine Needles builds on the excitement and loyal following of fans created by the first three. In 1996, Annika Sorenstam won the first. Karrie Webb won the second in 2001, and Cristie Kerr won the third in 2007. In addition, Pine Needles hosted the 1989 U.S. Girls’ Junior and 1991 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championships.

Bell Family Legacy

“The Donald Ross-designed course has already crowned three memorable Women’s Open champions, and we’re confident it will again be a welcoming yet challenging host for the world’s best players. I can only imagine how happy Mrs. Bell would have been to host another Women’s Open,” says Kelly Miller, president and CEO of Pine Needles, referring to the legendary Peggy Kirk Bell, his mother-in-law.

The renowned instructor and LPGA Tour charter member bought the club with her husband, Warren “Bullet” Bell, in 1954 and began a lifelong journey of restoring the course and teaching thousands of men, women and youths how to enjoy the game. During her 60+ years as owner and head golf instructor of Pine Needles until her death in 2016, her enthusiasm and passion inspired countless students.

Bell is the reason that my mother-in-law, who passed in 2018 at the age 103, came from Minnesota for the 2001 Open and walked the course as a spry 86-year-old (as I tried to keep up with her).

Bell is largely credited with being the driving force behind the resort hosting its first three U.S. Women’s Opens. Although her presence will be missed this year, her spirit as the resort’s matriarch is unending.

Ownership of Pine Needles remains in the Bell family. Daughters Peggy Bell Miller and Bonnie Bell McGowan have taught golf there for more than 20 years. In addition to Miller as president, son-in-law Pat McGowan serves as the Director of Instruction. They continue the Bell family’s spirt and passion for the game, which makes Pine Needles so special.

Special Course for World’s Best

The course is destined to be special for Rose Zhang, the world’s No. 1 amateur, who earned her spot to compete in the Open after winning the U.S. Girls’ Junior to capture her second USGA title.

Similarly, Webb notes how special Pine Needles is as the course where not only she won as the defending champion but also where she played her first Open. She says: “Pine Needles is, if not my favorite U.S. Women’s Open venue, it’s in the top three.”

However, the biggest attraction this year at Pine Needles may be Sorenstam, one of the game’s greatest champions. After a 13-year hiatus from competition, she captured the 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s Open title, which earned a place in her first U.S. Women’s Open since 2008. Adding to the significance of her exemption is that Pine Needles is the site of her second U.S. Women’s Open victory. She says: “Pine Needles is obviously a great test of golf. I know I loved it, and I still love it.”

A new $10 million purse on the line, up from $5.5 million in 2021, makes Pine Needles the place for women golfers to be in June. Female professionals and amateurs who haven’t earned a place yet are competing in 36-hole qualifiers from April 19 to May 16 at 26 courses for an opportunity to play at Pine Needles. The qualifying sites are in 17 states as well as three courses overseas in South Korea, Japan, and England.

Want to see some action before June? Mid-Pines Inn & Golf Club, across Midland Road from Pine Needles, will host a qualifier on Tuesday, May 3.

Because hosting the Women’s Open is a mammoth undertaking even with all the previous experience, approximately 1,500 volunteers will help the USGA pull off the event. If you are not volunteering but are interested in attending, don’t delay in getting tickets because some such as tickets for the Daily Bell Pavilion and Weekly Bell Pavilion are already sold out.

For tickets and information, usga.org.

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