By Joe Passov
Twenty-five years ago, I drew one of those assignments that happen in life — to the fortunate few. As a senior editor at LINKS magazine, I signed on to document the first golf cruise put on by Kalos Tours, a respected travel outfit from Chapel Hill, N.C.
On the docket were easing down the Danube on the River Cloud, a modern equivalent of a 1930s-style private yacht, embarking for sightseeing excursions in Hungary, Austria and Germany and occasionally breaking up the days with golf rounds in each country. Ain’t no bad in that lineup, as my mother-in-law used to say. Little did I know that the highlight of the trip would be the irrepressible joy that radiated from our “celebrity” host, Peggy Kirk Bell.
I knew of Peggy Kirk Bell mostly as the genial proprietor of wonderful Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, where I had played and stayed five years prior, and visited again when I covered the 1996 U.S. Women’s Open.
A bit of studying put her in even higher esteem. She was a founding member of the LPGA, a major championship winner and the 1990 recipient of the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor bestowed by the United States Golf Association. I also knew she was one of golf’s top teachers, renowned for the acclaimed, women-friendly Golfaris she hosted at her establishment.
I contemplated that given all of those accolades, she might be an intimidating, unapproachable presence. If it were possible to be 100 percent wrong, I was.
Peggy Kirk Bell was the dance partner of your dreams — athletic, intelligent, witty and tons of fun. And here we were, all of us lucky souls swaying to the beat of Europe’s legendary Danube, led by a bandleader with a twinkle in her eye and a love for life. Credit Kalos founder Jim Lamont for entrusting the success of his first golf cruise to Mrs. Bell. I asked him recently how he came to select Peggy to be his first host.
“I happened to know her CFO at the time, who was close to the Bell family,” recalled Lamont. “He asked Peggy if she might ever be interested in doing something like that. And if you know Peggy, you can imagine how she sounded when she responded — ‘Yeah, I just flew with the Red Barons last week. Why wouldn’t I want to do a river cruise?’ She was game for anything. She also had a great mailing list. She invited everybody! And everybody wanted to be with her. That was the launch of our golf cruise business.”
Peggy Kirk Bell was the life of the party. Her energy never flagged, her humor never ebbed. She entertained with stories at cocktail hour and at dinner, patiently and cheerfully instructed her playing partners on the golf course and played eager tourist just like the rest of us as we toured Austria’s Melk Abbey, listened to sweet violins at Vienna’s 14th century Palais Palffy and scarfed down sausage and Bavarian Cream custard in Regensburg.
An on-board highlight revolved around an afternoon clinic on the sundeck, which housed an artificial putting green. The addition of a hitting net enabled Peggy to display her full repertoire of shots and wisecracks during one of the most wonderful golf clinics ever conducted at land or at sea. Jim Lamont starts laughing even before he recalls the most unforgettable moment of the clinic.
“Peggy’s back there talking, everybody’s lined up, having drinks in a big ol’ semi-circle around her and she’s talking about the grip, the stance and just basic stuff,” remembered Lamont. “She’s standing the whole time and she’s got, like two or three clubs to hit balls into this little net. She’s talking, holding a 7-iron or something and then she switches, and she grabs a wedge. And she hits, in my memory, what was the very first golf ball ever on the ship.
“When she changed to the wedge, she hit it over the net. The ball just bounces — ‘Boing,’ ‘boing,’ ‘boing’ — the perfect bounce down the deck. As everybody watches with their mouths open, it rolls and bounces like 200 feet, hits the bridge where the captain is driving the ship — and hits the window. And Peggy gave that smile and said, “Did I do that?”
Lamont also relates a story of the effect Peggy had on people of every walk of life. He had been trying to get his group onto a new Jack Nicklaus design in Cologne, Germany, called Golf Platz Gut Larchenhof, but couldn’t even summon a callback. “So I sent them a sample brochure,” said Lamont. “They called me soon after and said that they would be happy to meet me and host my group. Wow! So six weeks later, I’m over there to meet the owner of the club. It turns out he learned golf as a kid from watching Jack Nicklaus and Peggy Kirk Bell videos. And when he saw Peggy Kirk Bell in the brochure, he asked, ‘Is she coming?’ I said, ‘Of course she’s coming.’
When we arrived, they put the old video up in the clubhouse, and Peggy is, of course, putting both hands on both cheeks, pulling her face back and saying, ‘Look, I look the same!’”
What I savored most on the cruise was prompting Peggy to tell tales of the early days of the LPGA Tour, the shared car rides, the paltry prize money, the promotions the ladies did when they arrived in tournament town, the questionable course conditions at most stops, and especially the wonderful camaraderie. That’s when she resembled the saintly aunt, reminiscing about the old days.
On the golf course, however, she was ever the delightful competitor. We were paired at a lovely old layout that unfolded on the grounds of the Schonborn Castle. The needling, the eye-rolling, the laughter and her innate will to win heightened every aspect of the experience.
Jim Lamont poured out his final recollections of Peggy Kirk Bell on that river cruise with obvious warmth. “She was so much fun,” he said. “She loved everybody, didn’t know a stranger, greeted everybody like they’re her best friend and was willing to help anybody with any of the golf fundamentals. She was one fun, classy lady.”
He couldn’t have said it better.
Joe Passov, a.k.a. “Travelin’ Joe,” has been writing about golf since 1991, with a specialty in travel, history and golf course architecture. In 2019, the American Society of Golf Course Architects honored Joe with its Donald Ross Award, for contributions to golf and to golf course design. He lives in Cave Creek, Arizona, with his wife Betsy.