As many busy people do when they look back on their accomplishments, Judy Bell remarked, “My goodness, it feels like the blink of an eye.” “But I am so glad that people won’t make a big deal about it anymore.”
Twenty years ago, when Bell became the first female president of the USGA, people certainly made a big deal of it. It was a sea change in the way the Association, the way golf, operated. But for the native of Wichita, Kan., who grew into a fixture in women’s amateur golf on her way to becoming a successful retailer/entrepreneur in Colo., it was just another way to serve the game, which she played well enough to match the U.S. Women's Open 18-hole scoring record, with a round of 67 in 1964.
Bell has dedicated her life to making golf more accessible and inclusive for girls, minorities and those with disabilities. She is thrilled about the election of Diana Murphy as the USGA’s 64th president. But the folksy, never-met-a-stranger author of 2002’s memoir, Breaking the Mold, remains a bit tongue-tied about being named the winner of the 2016 Bob Jones Award. The USGA’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award recognizes an individual who demonstrates the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones, winner of nine USGA championships. Bell will be honored Tuesday, June 14, at a ceremony during the week of the 116th U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club. She recently shared some of her views about her past, Murphy’s present and golf’s future:
Who were your golf inspirations?
Peggy Kirk Bell[no relation], Glenna Collett Vare and Mary Lena Faulk. All of these women were pioneers and role models for me.
As you were growing in the amateur game, what were your aspirations?
To win the city and state championships. Then to play on the USA Curtis Cup Team and win the Women’s Amateur. [Bell played on the 1960 and 1962 Curtis Cup teams and reached the quarterfinal round of match play in the Women's Amateur three times.].
How were those aspirations nurtured?
By practicing, and by Dad’s checkbook! My parents were my biggest fans. My mother was a stickler for sportsmanlike conduct. She saw me throw a club at the driving range once and I was grounded for a week. Mother and Dad financed my travel to tournaments and accompanied me until I was a freshman at Wichita State University.
Did that inspire you to dedicate your life in service of the game?
Golf has always been my personal passion and I’ve always played as an amateur. I still had businesses to run but I could never wait to get out on the golf course. Things just snowballed gradually. My work on USGA committees, starting with the Girls’ Junior Championship Committee, fed my passion for golf.
How can we make young people, women, the handicapped, minorities, see golf – whether just loving the game or becoming an accomplished player – as worth aspiring to?
All that needs to happen is to convince them to try it. With a basic understanding of the Rules and sufficient access to a course, many beginners will fall in love with it.
But some people come in, then leave in short order. How do we get their attention, improve the experience and reverse that trend?
This is a big challenge. Participating needs to be fun. It is a difficult game to learn and the learning method needs to be lightened up. We have to make it fun on the course. It might be fewer holes to help people squeeze more golf into their busy lives or it could be just changing attitudes to help new golfers have more fun. You are outside with your friends. Of course you should be having fun!
How do we keep new golfers coming back?
Listen, golf is hard. We can’t avoid that. But we need more joy in golf, like the connection to nature, being with friends and, no matter what your skill level is, enjoying the great shots we are all capable of making! I think we need to see golf as a gift. You can have just as much fun playing at 6,400 yards. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone at 7,200 yards.
We also need to stress the special bond that golfers share.
That’s right! I have friends all over the U.S. and around the world. I think I was 15, at the 1953 U.S. Girls’ Junior. Millie Meyerson won it. We were friends. Then she was home raising a family and I never heard from her. Eventually, she turned 50 and started playing again in our championships. The minute we saw each other, 35 years disappeared and we had a great time again. It was just like overseas, when I played in the Women’s British Amateur and the Curtis Cup. Those are friendships that have lasted a lifetime.
Does it feel like 20 years since your election as USGA president?
Nope. Seems like yesterday. Those two years were a whirlwind of travel, meetings and championships, and I loved every minute of it.
Are you happy to no longer have to be asked ‘Why hasn’t there been another female USGA president since your tenure?’
What a relief! I am so happy to have another woman being elected to the position. Diana Murphy will be great!
What advice do you have for her?
My advice is to follow your instincts and believe in yourself. Diana is an outstanding ambassador for the USGA.
What was the best aspect and the toughest aspect of being USGA president?
It was a thrill to work with a wonderful staff and more than 1,200 great volunteers. But when the buck stops with you, it can be tough as decisions are made that affect a lot of people.
Has golf made sufficient progress in making the game more accessible over the past 20 years?
I believe golf has made progress toward improving access to the game for everyone. The enhancements in equipment have been remarkable. However, we still need to work toward making golf more affordable for everyone and less intimidating for beginners.
What does the Bob Jones Award mean to you?
When I look at the list of recipients, I have respect and admiration for all of them but I never imagined that I would be a recipient! To receive this honor now is truly one of the best things that has ever happened in my golf life.
How exciting can the next 20 years be for golf?
There are some fantastic young players out there who make watching the game exciting and inspiring to the gallery. The beauty of the course, the promotion of sportsmanship and personal integrity, and the joy of hitting a perfect drive – attributes that no other game can provide -- assures golf a place in the sports world.
David Chmiel is the manager of Members content for the USGA. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.