Kelly Miller can still see her mother-in-law, the late great Peggy Kirk Bell, working her magic at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, spreading the game and the joy of life as she sprinkles pixie dust on the thousands of invited to his piece of paradise in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
Bell was many things – a trailblazer in women’s professional golf, an outstanding teacher and her own driver for a time – but more than anything, she was a joyful force of nature, living to be 95 until her death in 2016.
That’s why the US Women’s Open first came to Pine Needles in 1996 and made three return visits, the latest this week as the USGA seeks a champion to stand alongside Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb (2001) and Cristie Kerr (2007) as winners in this golf happy place.
“It’s a tribute to (Bell) and to the community and to the state,” said Miller, president of Pine Needles, which also owns the Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club and the Southern Pines Golf Club. “Our relationship with the USGA began with Mrs. Bell being part of the Curtis Cup team (1950) and later with her friend Judy Bell, who was president of the USGA.”
It’s Miller’s charge – and his passion – to build on what Bell and her husband Warren (known as Bullet) took on in 1954. Along with his wife, Peggy Ann, his sister-in-law and her husband, Bonnie and Pat McGowan, along with her business partner Haresh Tharani, the Pine Needles business is thriving.
The old adage that real estate is all about location, location, location works to Pine Needles advantage because there is no more golf-centric place in this country than the Pinehurst area, where more than 40 courses exist almost neck and neck.
It also increases the challenge. Pinehurst Resort with its famous No. 2 course is less than 10 minutes’ drive away, and the resort’s reach is expanding with hotel upgrades, a popular new short course, the creation of a brewery and other updates.
Meanwhile, Pine Needles with its two sister properties is its own destination, a collection of three Donald Ross-designed developments nestled among sandy soil, pine trees and beautifully situated between Southern Pines and the village of Pinehurst.
It sells, and blocked tee sheets and hotel reservations prove it.
“Pinehurst Resort and (Chairman) Tom Pashley are great friends,” Miller said. “We try to meet regularly for lunch, and when people see us, we joke that we’re setting the rates for next year.
“I’m a huge Pinehurst fan and always have been. They are the leaders here, and I hope they are complete 100% of the time. They run the area, and if they’re okay, generally everyone’s okay.
“But it’s a different feel at Pine Needles. Some choose ours, others choose theirs.
What Pine Needles sells is itself, and that means more than a round of golf or a night in the lodge there or across the road in the big white hotel in Mid Pines. It’s a sentiment, which germinated in the 1950s when the Bells took over, and which continues today.
Although the clubs have around 400 members, most of the play comes from resort patrons who come for days – and sometimes weeks – at a time. If there’s a secret to the Pine Needles formula, it’s that visitors never feel like customers. They are considered part of the place, whether it is a short visit or a longer stay.
“All of us, from me to (former chairman) Don Padgett (II) to Tom, it was much better for us to have a wonderful, unique and different business from us just down the road than not not have it,” Pat Corso said. , also a former president of Pinehurst Resort, who later led an economic development group in Moore County, where the resort is located.
“It’s an asset for us, a tremendous asset. Look in our area, yes you have 40 courses, but you have two top resorts. We reached out to each other all the time. It was more about being friends. You couldn’t be better friends with some. In business, I don’t even call them competitors.
Miller has been a successful amateur golfer at the national level for a long time. A former University of Alabama golfer, Miller has won — among other titles — the Azalea Amateur, Coleman Cup, North Carolina Mid-Amateur and Carolinas Mid-Amateur, and his brother-in-law McGowan is a former PGA Tour player. . So Miller is a golf man in one of the great golf families in the country.
Over the years, Miller and Pine Needles have made careful decisions. When the opportunity arose to buy Mid Pines across the street, Miller added it to the portfolio, asking golf friends to help arrange the purchase.
In 2013, Miller brought in designer Kyle Franz and let him refresh Ross’ original design. The result was a dramatic upgrade that accentuates Ross’ design artistry while incorporating the scruffy Sandhills look for which the area is famous. Mid Pines has grown in popularity, respect and has maintained those things.
“What he did was deal with very interesting times, good and bad, and come out the other side, still in a solid position and move the place forward,” Corso said.
“Mid Pines was a very strategic decision. This gave the station two legs.
It worked so well that Franz did similar work at Pine Needles in 2017, tweaking what was already considered one of North Carolina’s finest courses and a favorite among golf course architecture enthusiasts.
Miller also brought in businessman Tharani in 2017 as a partner. Tharani has been in the golf apparel business for many years.
Almost since arriving in the area in 1982, Miller had a soft spot for the Southern Pines Golf Club, which was owned and operated by the local Elks Club. It sits on what is probably the hilliest area of a generally flat county and was a Ross design that had the bones to be special. What he lacked was money, which left him rough around the edges.
After several attempts to buy or rent the club, it finally came together in 2020 just as the pandemic was coming. Two years later and again with Franz leading the design, Southern Pines is another success story.
The course itself, particularly the work done on and around the greens, sets the layout apart. There’s still some cosmetic work to be done – more trees to be felled, cart path improvements, clubhouse refresh – but Southern Pines offers an exceptional golfing experience that will only improve over time. It’s also within walking distance of downtown Southern Pines, which has a Bedford Falls feel.
“It was always a hidden gem and the real golf enthusiasts loved it.
Hopefully we make it really great,” Miller said.
“We learn as we go. The third course is phenomenal to have. People want to play more than one course. I knew that when we started with Pine Needles. I knew we needed more than 18 holes.
Now comes the happy challenge of creating packages that integrate the three courses while meeting the needs of members. Improvements are planned at all levels, including hotel rooms, chalets and other areas. The continued momentum in the game – Miller estimates that business is up about 30% from pre-pandemic numbers and there is little need for discounts – has benefited the Pinehurst area as much that maybe anywhere.
“In adding Southern Pines, think about the patience it took. He stuck with it and made it happen and he has a great partner in Haresh,” Corso said.
“Kelly is subtle. Not loud, not in your face. There is a quiet competence at all levels in business and in people skills. I don’t know anyone better.
Hosting a fourth US Women’s Open in 26 years is a testament to the power of the venue and, perhaps more importantly, the people who run Pine Needles. It’s a comfortable place, a place you’d rather not leave. This is a place where golf lives.
“It was a family business and we only have one family involved now. Next year it will be 70 years since the Bell family has been involved,” Miller said.
“We have no intention of going anywhere. All of us, as we go through life, are gatekeepers. We’re just trying to leave it better for the next generation.
Ron Green Jr. is one of North Carolina’s top sportswriters, having spent more than 30 years covering golf, college and professional sports. He joined the Global Golf Post team in 2013.