SOUTHEN PINES — You could, even in her absence, feel her presence.
A husband would know Bonnie Bell McGowan was there in spirit, and Pat McGowan would have no doubt.
“My Dear Bonnie,” he would write in the hand-written letter to his wife of 41 years and shared by the Rev. John Hage to those who came Wednesday for this celebration of life for Bonnie Bell McGowan that drew family, friends and golfers to Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church, where every sanctuary pew was filled from beyond the vestibule to the balcony above. “I know you’re smiling as you see the love and comfort of this tremendous gathering. You have the best seat in the house. I am extremely thankful for everyone who came here today to celebrate your life.”
As the preacher relayed a husband’s words, it was like Bonnie Bell McGowan was standing over a birdie putt for victory at the 72nd hole of her beloved Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, just two miles down road from this last farewell.
“Quiet, please,” you almost could see in your mind’s eye on the tournament golf marshal’s cue. With such reverence, those in the pews hung on to every moment of a husband’s parting words that would touch every heart.
“And what a life it was,” Pat McGowan would write. “Everyone here is a better person because of how you touched their lives. Always giving … never wanting or asking anything in return. You gave, you gave, you gave, until there was nothing left to give. You are in God’s hands now, and it’s time for you to receive all his blessings that you so richly deserve.”
Daughter of a golf legend
Bonnie Bell grew up the oldest child of the late Warren “Bullet” Bell and Peggy Kirk Bell, a charter founder of the Ladies Professional Golfers Association who honed her game in her native Findlay, Ohio, before finding her way in 1953 to Pine Needles Resort & Golf Club under the business savvy of Warren Bell.
“She was passionate about the legacy of her mother and dad,” brother-in-law Kelly Miller would say. “Basketball and golf would become her sports, and her athleticism from her father. From her mom, her golf, her love of teaching and her heart.”
Golf, let there be no doubt, was in her DNA from birth and growing up in the family home that overlooked the 18th hole of the picturesque Pine Needles Resort & Golf Club. Bonnie McGowan would follow in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher of the game.
She played with passion and a will to win, from nearby Pinecrest High School to her mother’s alma mater at Rollins College in Winter Haven, Florida, and later for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Bonnie Bell led the Tar Heels with the lowest stroke average.
A sandy-haired golfer out of Brigham Young University attempting to earn his PGA playing card in 1977 at Pinehurst No. 2 caught her eye. They married in 1981 and became a part of the professional tour. She would become president of the PGA Wives Association.
Twice, he would win, and she was there for every drive and chip and putt.
He was the gentleman golfer.
She was the golfing wife by his side, and ever charming with her engaging and encouraging way.
The couple returned to Pine Needles in the 1990s, where they raised a son and a daughter and Bonnie McGowan coached golf at the O’Neal School and Sandhills Community College. She joined with her mother for instruction at the “Golfaris,” which became such a popular and welcoming destination for women hoping to improve their game.
She taught her pupils and her children golf.
And she taught them the love of her Lord and savior.
“I worked at Pine Needles 23 years,” Chip King, the former head professional at Highland Country Club in Fayetteville, would say. “There was never a doubt with Bonnie that she loved the Lord. Bonnie lived out her faith right in front of me. I considered her a friend and a sister in the Lord.”
‘I was in awe’
She took such pride that the U.S. Women’s Open would come to Pine Needles in 1996, 2001, 2007, and 2019, when Peggy Kirk Bell was posthumously inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame at the Sunset Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
“I was in awe,” Bonnie Bell McGowan would say about the ceremony celebrating her mother's lifetime achievement. “So many of the past inductees who helped get Mom in were seated in the first six rows, and a lot of them were crying. When I saw their emotions, I kind of lost it, too. Nancy Lopez came up to me crying and said, ‘I can’t tell you how much your mother influenced my life.’ They all wished Mom could have been there.”
And she took such pride when the U.S. Women’s Open returned to Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club for a record fourth time in 2022, when the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer came.
“Most of the media was kind of approaching us like, ‘This is hard, the first Open not having your mother here,’ which was different for sure,” Kelly Miller told reporter Mary Kate Murphy of The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines. “But little did they know that was in our hearts.”
‘I have fought the good fight’
Bonnie Bell McGowan died Jan. 12.
She was 68.
“I have fought the good fight,” son Michael McGowan would read from the scriptures of Timothy 4:7-8. “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. ...”
Well done, the preacher would say, good and faithful servant.
“Bonnie took her gifts and used it all for a purpose beyond herself, whether it was on the driving range or a Bible study,” the Rev. Hage would say. “She remembered people at the core of her being. God was calling her to live a life beyond herself. Bonnie was a great disciple. Most of all, Bonnie knew the love God and her life just exuded it.”
And he would remind us of a husband’s heartfelt parting from the wife Pat McGowan cherished.
“At the core of this letter is love in the last days of Bonnie’s life,” he would say. “Bonnie was surrounded by love.”
A large photograph of Bonnie Bell McGowan, her plaid and pleated golf skirt and antique golf clubs nearby, offered remembrance of the best of Bonnie Bell McGowan’s love of the game.
Her smile was happy.
Her countenance was radiant.
She looked so much like Peggy Kirk Bell, who died at age 95 on Nov. 23, 2016.
“I’m so proud of our family,” Pat McGowan would write to his wife. “The heart they showed those last few days. Their love came straight from you. So, we celebrate your life today. We’ll laugh and tell Bonnie Bell stories. Everyone will leave here feeling empowered to do more for others. Oh, and I’ll finish the garage and clean out the storage unit, if I can find it! Ha!”
“To put it simply, ‘You flippin’ crushed it, Girl!’
“I love you,” Pat McGowan would assure, “and I will see you again.”
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.