How a Talented Amateur Became Golf's No. 1 Volunteer
The first woman president of the USGA aims to get golfers to speed up play
It is a discomfiting episode at the Crestview Country Club in Wichita, Kan., that is most deeply etched in Judy Bell's memory of her early years playing golf.
"I was on the practice range one day by myself," recalls the first woman president of the United States Golf Association in a phone interview. "There was this big circular drive around the club. I was quite a ways from it, hitting balls and having trouble, real trouble. Finally, after one shot, I let my club fly. I can't remember how old I was, but it felt great. I mean I let it go!
"All of a sudden I hear this horn and 'Judy!' It was my mother. My timing was lousy. She grounded me for a week."
Bell can laugh today about the timely arrival of her mother, who was pretty strict with Bell and her three brothers. Looking back, she obviously appreciates the lessons she learned at home about sportsmanship and playing etiquette. They have helped to frame a life in golf that has brought her to the game's highest volunteer position in America.
Her arrival, of course, hasn't happened overnight. Her first encounters with the sport's national governing body were in the 1950s when, as a teen, she began playing in USGA events. She recalls once taking a train to Monterrey, Calif., with her parents to play in a national junior girls championship. Altogether she has played in 38 USGA championships, the most recent being the 1994 Senior Women's Amateur.
She lists her competitive highlights as the opportunity to play for the US as a Curtis Cup team member in matches against Britain (team member in 1960 and '62, captain in 1986 and '88) and a tournament record score of 67 in the third round of the 1964 Women's Open in San Diego.
"It was the best round I ever had in competition, and it was at the Women's Open, no less," she says.
Despite her playing talent, she never seriously considered turning professional.
"Golf is a game and sport for me, not a vocation," she explains. Nor was the Ladies Professional Golf Association as highly developed when she was a competitor as now. "I pictured myself marrying out of college [Wichita State] and having a family. But if that didn't happen, I planned to be a retailer."
Today she is the sole or part owner of several clothing stores and a deli in Colorado Springs. She spends half her time working as the USGA president, though, a position she came through the ranks to achieve. The job involves overseeing an organization with 188 staff members, more than 1,600 volunteers, and a 15-member Executive Committee.
Although Bell has received quite a bit of media attention for her new position, she tells a reporter, "I don't see this as telling Judy Bell's story at all. I see this as talking about the USGA."
Among her priorities is making golf more accessible.
'WE'VE got some really good ideas on the drawing board," she says. "I'm not hedging, but because we don't own and run golf courses, it's an encouraging kind of process." She points to a nine-hole course built by the Tennessee Golf Foundation, the Little Course at Aspen Grove, in Franklin, Tenn., as a model of what can be done. It's short enough to play over an extended lunch hour, gets 90 percent of its business from school-age golfers, is affordable with a $5 youth fee, and boasts a challenging layout, a teaching facility, even dormitory rooms for junior campers, many of whom get scholarship help.
"I'm probably more excited about this than any course that has been built," Bell says. "We couldn't go wrong if there were a hundred of these around the country."
Time is the enemy of her sport - the time it takes to play 18 holes. Bell wants the USGA to campaign for faster play and calls the slow pace many have adopted as "a detriment to going forward. There are many extraneous activities taking place on the golf course, from the top players to beginners, that have little or nothing to do with striking a golf ball and getting it in the hole. We [golfers] have become very mechanical and method-oriented."
Bell says her personal motto for the USGA is "By golfers and for golfers," regardless of race, gender, or wherewithal.
"Women should be part of the whole scheme in every way," she says. As for pushing women's issues, such as those that arise with private clubs, she says, "I don't see that as my particular role. The USGA is against discrimination in any area, but we can't lay down laws. The playing of the game should be open, but at the same time I happen to support the idea of private clubs. I think they have the right to invite whomever they wish to invite to join them."
Sometimes, Bell says, the USGA may be misconstrued as male-oriented because she is the association's first female president. "The USGA has been involved in the women's side of golf for 100 years," she points out. "There aren't equipment rules for women and equipment rules for men or amateur status rules for women and amateur status rules for men, it's for golf."