Volunteers are the core of what makes golf the great game that it is and Judy Bell has been a tireless leader. For her lifelong commitment to golf, Bell earned a well-deserved place in the World Golf Hall of Fame through the Lifetime Achievement category.
While she is best remembered as the first female president of the United States Golf Association in its 100-plus-year history, Bell also had a remarkable playing career. A lifelong amateur, Bell competed in her first tournament in 1948 when her father saw her putting around the course and entered her in the prestigious Broadmoor Invitational.
"The good news is that I won the girls' division. The bad news is that I was the only girl."
“I played my first tournament when I was 10,” she said. “The good news is that I won the girls’ division. The bad news is that I was the only girl.”
Having never played 18 holes, Bell shot 113 in the qualifier, made the third-flight consolation final and won it with a pressure-packed fairway-wood shot to a lake-fronted green. Her victory won her six green after-dinner cordial glasses. At the time, she didn’t know what they were, but she treasures that prize to this day.
From that modest start, Bell developed into one of the nation’s top amateur players. Her relationship with the USGA started in 1952 when the Kansan took a train to California to compete in the U.S. Girls’ Junior. She lost to Mickey Wright in the semifinals in what turned out to be her best finish in an USGA event. “It’s been all downhill ever since,” she quipped.
Bell won the Wichita city title at 14 and became the Kansas state women’s amateur champion a year later. As a collegiate player, she took time off to dedicate herself to the premier events and blistered the amateur circuit.
“My goals back then were very simple-winning the Broadmoor and making the Curtis Cup team.”
Bell capped her sparkling amateur career by achieving both of those honors. She won the Broadmoor three times and competed on the U.S. team in 1960 and 1962. “There is nothing that can compare with playing for your country,” said Bell, who later captained the Curtis Cup team in 1986 and 1988.
As a player, she competed in 38 USGA championships and in 1964 she fired a then-record 67 in the U.S. Women’s Open, a mark that stood for 14 years.
Just as important as her accomplishments in the game is Bell’s lifetime record of service to the golf industry. Bell has been a USGA volunteer for 33 years.
The Colorado Springs resident first became involved with the USGA in 1961 when she was a member of the Junior Championship Committee. Bell has been a USGA rules official since the 1970s and has worked both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. She served on the Women’s Committee for 16 years and in 1987 became the first female member of the Executive Committee.
Judy Bell was the first female President of the USGA.
In 1996, Bell was elected as the 54th president of the USGA and the first woman to lead golf’s ruling body. “I bet that’s the first time the incoming president kissed the outgoing president on the way to the dais,” she joked after it was announced she would succeed Reg Murphy.
Clearly, this was more than a statement of gender equality at the very top of golf in the United States. As one of the most respected golf administrators in the field, Bell had freely given her time and expertise to the betterment of the game.
“Judy’s gender I don’t believe was a consideration in her election. Her abilities, I think, were the consideration that caused her to be selected as the first woman president,” said Stuart Bloch, president from 1992-1993. “If she were a man, she would have been elected.”
During her tenure as USGA president, Bell and the USGA Executive Committee initiated the “For the Good of the Game” program, a $50-million initiative to take the game to new levels by bringing it to non-traditional players, such as youth, minorities and the disabled.
“Golf is for everyone regardless of race, color or physical handicaps,” said Bell, who has taken a leadership role in Golf 20/20 and The First Tee initiatives. “Access is important. What would make me happy would be to look at this game down the road and see that the opportunity is in place for everyone who wants to play the game and learn about it and have affordable access.”