by David Shefter
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – When Kelly Miller graduated from the University of Alabama in 1981, he knew two things: his game wasn’t good enough to try the professional tours, yet he wanted to stay connected to golf.
It helped that his future wife and fellow Alabama alum, Peggy Ann Bell, is the younger daughter of Peggy Kirk Bell, the proprietor of Pine Needles Resort & Lodge in Southern Pines, N.C. The two had met in Tuscaloosa, Ala. – Kelly was on the men’s golf team and Peggy played on the women’s team – and formed a relationship that went far beyond the golf course.
Their marriage brought Miller to Pine Needles, where he began as a front-desk clerk. Thirty-two years later, Miller, 55, is president of the resort, which has two championship courses designed by Donald Ross – Pine Needles and Mid-Pines – that have hosted a combined five USGA championships.
“It’s been a wonderful way to stay close to golf and meet lots of people,” said Miller. “I’m one of the fortunate ones who loves what they do and loves being around people who play golf.”
Although Miller quickly deduced that his game wasn’t good enough to make the grade professionally, the lifelong amateur has enjoyed competing in local, state and national competitions. Turning 55 in January offered Miller the chance to get into senior golf, including this week’s U.S. Senior Amateur at Big Canyon Country Club. It’s his 11th USGA championship, a résumé that includes three U.S. Amateurs, six Mid-Amateurs and the inaugural USGA Men’s State Team Championship in 1995, where he represented North Carolina.
In 1996, he advanced to the Round of 16 in the U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge in North Plains, Ore., losing to eventual runner-up Steve Scott. He also was a quarterfinalist in the 2000 British Mid-Amateur at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake), site of this year’s British Open.
Miller, who carded a 1-under 71 on Sunday to qualify for match play at 1-under 143, is equally proud of his accomplishments at Pine Needles, a resort Peggy Kirk Bell purchased with her husband Warren “Bullet” Bell in 1953. Peggy Kirk Bell was an elite amateur in the 1940s and ‘50s who represented the USA in the 1950 Curtis Cup Match. She later turned professional and made Pine Needles one of the elite destinations for female players to receive instruction.
In 1990, the USGA bestowed its highest honor – the Bob Jones Award – on Bell. Warren, a former professional basketball player for the NBA’s Fort Wayne (Ind.) Pistons, died in 1984 at age 62 of cancer. He and Bell had a son and two daughters, both of whom married golfers. Oldest daughter Bonnie married PGA Tour player Pat McGowan and all are involved with the resort today as golf instructors. Pat’s son, Michael, is an aspiring PGA Tour professional who recently advanced past the pre-qualifying stage of Q-School.
Warren Kirk Bell is currently a legislative assistant for U.S. Congressman Howard Coble (R-N.C.) in Washington, and is a principle owner of the Pine Needles Resort & Lodge.
Unlike his wife, Kelly Miller chose to work on the administrative side of the resort. He helped his mother-in-law bring the U.S. Girls’ Junior to Pine Needles in 1989, a championship won by Brandie Burton. Seven years later, the first of three U.S. Women’s Opens was conducted on the venerable Ross layout, with world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam successfully defending her title.
It was an emotional week for Bell, who turns 93 this week.
“When we were out on the first tee when the first ball was hit [that week], she just started crying,” said Miller of the 1996 Women’s Open. “She said, ‘Bullet would have been proud.’”
Miller served as the general chairman for that championship and the two subsequent Women’s Opens in 2002 (Karrie Webb) and 2007 (Cristie Kerr). All three championships were memorable, with No. 1-ranked players winning the first two and Kerr holding off world No. 1 Lorena Ochoa in 2007. Pine Needles also saw age barriers broken in 2002 and ’07, with Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson, respectively, becoming the youngest qualifiers in the championship’s history, a mark that was broken in June when Lucy Li qualified for the Women’s Open at neighboring Pinehurst No. 2.
Miller witnessed it all, noting wryly that he “was given a cart and a title, and I enjoyed it.”
Miller also was involved in the 2002 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at Mid-Pines, which is across the street from Pine Needles and was recently renovated by Kyle Franz. Carol Semple Thompson won her fourth consecutive title, defeating Barbara Berkmeyer in the final.
While work and family – he and Peggy have three children (Blair, 28; Melody, 26, and Kelly Ann, 21) – occupy much of his time, Miller is able to fit golf into his schedule. He won the 1993 Carolinas Mid-Am and the 1994 North Carolina Mid-Am. He also won the Azalea Amateur (1996) and the Coleman Invitational (2001) at Seminole Golf Club, where he is a member.
This year, Miller tuned up for the U.S. Senior Amateur by playing in a few invitational tournaments. He did not play the North & South Amateur at Pinehurst, but he has competed in the longtime national competition many times.
“Those kids hit it so far,” said Miller with a chuckle. “If I got lucky, I’d like to think I could make match play, but one of them is going to mow me down.”
He doesn’t have to worry about the youngsters this week at Big Canyon. He has had a chance to reconnect with many contestants, while also competing in a national-championship setting.
“What a spectacular place this is,” said Miller of Big Canyon. “It’s great to be with your buddies … and also feel like you maybe can be competitive.”
No matter what happens over the next few days, Miller knows he’ll be glad to return to Pine Needles.
“People love golf there,” said Miller of the Sandhills region. “They love watching great golf and they also like to play, too.”
Which succinctly sums up Miller’s life in the game.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.