Colorado Springs, Colo. – Judy Bell’s brown eyes, bright with interest, take it all in. The big scoreboard. The practice tee. The speed of the greens. Because she is eternally polite, her opinions will not be voiced. Unlike 1995, when she was co-chair of this championship at The Broadmoor, Bell is on the sidelines, watching. Others are in charge now but while the old order goeth, the mighty engine will not stop.
For Judy Bell, 74, there are few remaining peaks to scale. Throughout her life, Bell has been a doer. At 14, she organized a city-wide girls’ basketball league. As president of her junior high class, she lobbied athletes and African-American friends, becoming the single key to making integration work in her school. At home, three active older brothers hammered her with teasing questions. When you know that, it doesn’t seem such a long leap into Bell’s popular ascent as the first woman president of the USGA. In golf, she has won nearly every award worth mentioning and she picked up the Will Nicholson Award just last night.
This U.S. Women’s Open is in her hometown at her home club, yet Bell is not really involved in this championship in any official capacity. She is revered here, however, and her name, her likeness, her presence are strong.
She sits in a cart near the scoreboard, and spectators approach her for autographs. A sign denotes a clubhouse reception area as “The Judy Bell Room.” When Bell visited the USGA office at the championship site on Monday, USGA staff members lined up to greet her. When she pulled her Mini Cooper to the side of Lake Avenue to chat with a friend, a policeman tipped his cap and carefully placed a traffic cone behind her idling car. “Just didn’t want some car to hit you, Miss Bell,” the policeman said, and smiled.
Bell today is in that uneasy limbo between national stature and national treasure, a role she never sought.
“No, they haven’t asked me anything,” she says of those who are running this championship. She is matter of fact, perhaps remembering her own words at USGA championships over a 50-year volunteer career. “We will have 18 holes, 18 flagsticks, and we will declare a champion,” she always said. It kept things in perspective.
On Tuesday night, Bell attended a reception at The Carriage Club where the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf organization honored Bell and Barbara McIntire, her longtime business partner and a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. Hundreds of friends showed up: from Wilma Gilliland, long-ago chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee, to three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Hollis Stacy, to current contenders Morgan Pressel and Wendy Ward. The place was packed.
Admirers milled around Bell and McIntire where they sat. Both have battled such serious health issues that their recent resumes look like hospital charts. It’s a struggle for them to get around.
They’ve been friends for 60 years and in the glory days, when McIntire was winning national championships as one of the supreme amateurs in golf history, Bell largely took the helm of their retail shops. When Bell became the first woman on the USGA Executive Committee in 1987, McIntire played a larger role in the business. When Bell became USGA president in 1996, McIntire was in the second year of her term as chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee. They were a great team, doing the work, traveling thousands of miles on behalf of golf, confiding mostly in each other. Today, there are those who believe that it was largely through the work of Bell and McIntire that the U.S. Women’s Open is considered the greatest women’s golf championship in the world.
On Tuesday night, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf unveiled a team trophy named the McIntire-Bell Cup in their honor. McIntire made a typically gracious speech. “This is a first for me. She has always been the engine,” she said, gesturing toward Bell, “and I’ve been the little car at the end of the train. She has inspired so many and we appreciate all that she has done. She always had the vision and a great way with people.”
LPGA-USGA Girls Golf is perhaps Bell’s favorite cause as it directs thousands of girls into the game. When her autobiography was published a few years ago, she designated a large percentage of the profits to the organization.
Nearly 65 years ago, 10-year-old Judy Bell played the first 18 holes of her life at The Broadmoor Golf Club. Most mornings, she headed to Patty Jewett, a public layout in Colorado Springs, and dragged her clubs through nine-hole matches with her friends. A long time ago, she too was a girl golfer.
Since those early days Bell has set records as a player, represented her country on the Curtis Cup Team and scaled gender barriers to reach the presidency of the USGA, a scramble that landed her in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Along the way she made a thousand friends.
On Wednesday night, she received the Sixth Annual Will F. Nicholson Jr. Award, the first woman honoree for her dedication to the game. Despite a hefty ticket price, nearly 150 friends filled Cheyenne Mountain Country Club to honor her. Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, introduced Bell, recalling some of their funny moments with the USGA and paying tribute to her gracious nature and generosity of spirit. “We do not forget that her love of the game was at the heart of all she did,” Davis said.
Bell had a prepared speech, a talk designed to express her gratitude to McIntire for her longtime support and also to tell of her own heartfelt love for golf. Overcome by the evening, Bell could not speak in these serious tones. She told a few funny stories, thanked everyone, and sent her friends home.
Today, she drove to The Broadmoor to watch the action. A friend remarked that Barbara McIntire, so recently ill, must be happy for a day of rest. “Oh, no,” said Bell. “We’re like old fire horses. If there’s a championship in town, we’re going to be there!”
Bell looked cheerful, happy. Friends remarked that she looked better and healthier than she had in months. The Women’s Open was underway and life was good. The words of Barbara McIntire, the gracious speech that McIntire gave on behalf of them both, came to mind as we watched Bell drive away.
“I can’t tell you what it’s meant to me to be in the game of golf for as long as I have,” McIntire said. “Sixty-two years and it’s all been my pleasure to be with all of you and to serve the game in any way I can.”
It was a simple and graceful speech, a beautiful speech that seemed to have come from two hearts united in a common cause, and people who heard it cried.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.