N.C. Golf: Kelly Miller mixes new, old at venerable resorts
Top 100 Golf
Tucked among the towering longleaf pines along Midland Road just north of downtown Southern Pines sits a golf resort steeped in the game’s centuries-old tradition, complete with a wood-paneled lodge where generations of visitors have swapped stories about missed putts and sensational shots. To stay relevant in the age of millisecond attention spans and information overload, however, Kelly Miller knows that his sport and business need to keep a keen eye toward the future. While there is a place for golf history, yesterday won’t allow you to grow into tomorrow, the president of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club says.
“It’s a challenge,” says Miller, 59. “There are things that younger people want that older people might not be interested in. Music is a big thing on the golf course now, and for the longest time, it was taboo. My son, Blair, is a millennial and he’s actually got me kind of hooked. Now, I’ve got an [Ultimate Ears Boom speaker] in my golf bag.” A growing number of golfers now carry similar Bluetooth equipment to accompany their rounds, signaling a shift in golf culture led by younger players but increasingly accepted by older golfers.
“We’re still pretty much old-school at our facility,” Miller says. “But I can say we’re really looking for new ways to do things.” Thinking ahead helped prompt the family-owned business to take on a wealthy investor last year to help finance improvements.
For the last 60 years, the resort has been synonymous with its owner, Peggy Kirk Bell, who died in 2016 at age 95. In 1953, she married Warren “Bullet” Bell, a former professional basketball player with the Fort Wayne Pistons. Later that year, they purchased Pine Needles, which consisted of the golf course and one lodge, for the princely sum of $50,000. It felt like all the money in the world at that time, she often said.
Peggy Kirk Bell was a charter member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. In the early days of the LPGA, Bell flew her own single-engine airplane to and from tournaments and on barnstorming trips around the country conducting clinics and playing exhibition matches to promote Wilson Sporting Goods.
One day in the early 1950s, Bell was flying in the Midwest when an electrical storm came up. Looking for a place to land, she flew over a cornfield and said a foxhole prayer: “God, if you get this plane on the ground, I’ll never fly again.” She landed successfully and trekked to a nearby farmhouse, where she offered the owner an airplane for a bargain price. She ended up using the proceeds from the airplane sale to build a swimming pool at Pine Needles. “She said every time she walked past that pool, she thought of the plane,” Miller says. In the ensuing decades, Bell was recognized as one of the sport’s leading instructors and created popular golf retreats for women at Pine Needles called “Golfaris.”
Bullet died in 1984 and Miller, who had married one of Bell’s daughters, Peggy Ann, took over as general manager at age 24. He had played college golf and graduated from the University of Alabama in 1981. With additions over the years, the resort now has 74 rooms.
In 1994, Bell had the opportunity to buy Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club, almost directly across Midland Road. Like Pine Needles, Mid Pines was created by famed designer Donald Ross. Adjacent to the golf course is a hotel that was built in 1921 and cottages along the 10th fairway that serve as rentals for golf guests. It was a perfect fit. Bell, along with investors Sonny Ridenhour and Jim Marsh of High Point and Jack Campbell of Winston-Salem, bought the property.
“The two Donald Ross originals and their warm, unaffected lodgings and gracious staffs have become as authentic a center of the best things in golf as there is in America,” Jaime Diaz wrote in Golf Digest about Pine Needles and Mid Pines shortly after Peggy Kirk Bell died.
Pine Needles has hosted three U.S. Women’s Opens — 1996, 2001 and 2007 — the most prestigious championship in women’s golf. The resort will host the championship again in 2022.
Throughout its history, Pine Needles has been a family business. In addition to Miller and his wife, Peggy Ann, Bell’s daughter, Bonnie, and her husband, Pat McGowan, have worked for the company. So has Bell’s son, Kirk. McGowan is a former PGA Tour member who is director of instruction at the resort.
Miller has been looking toward the future for some time. But that path sparked an awakening. “We were in the process a couple of years ago working with a group out west on doing some neat things at Pine Needles and Mid Pines,” Miller says. “I wanted to show them our plan that was a really cool plan. The consultant came down to breakfast the next morning and I said, ‘What do you think?’
“He said, ‘You’d better be careful building an iconic resort.’ Somehow, I thought that didn’t sound like a compliment. He said, ‘Look at these places now like The Homestead [in Hot Springs, Va.],’ which is as traditional a resort as there is. ‘They put in a water park.’ All of a sudden it hit me that he was right. We were trying to build what’s been in the past.”
Miller connected with business-school students at UNC Chapel Hill to analyze possible changes. The research pointed in a specific direction.
“We need to look for what the millennials want,” Miller says. “They don’t care about the size of the room. They care about the public facilities; they want to bring their pets in, stuff I wouldn’t have thought of. We’re really in the throes of what we need to do to be relevant over the next 20 years.
“We think tradition is very important, but the question is: Does the next generation think it’s important? I happen to believe they do. The balancing act we have to have is how can we keep tradition and make it relevant for today’s travelers and those in the future?”
To help facilitate the change, Mid Pines in December took on New Jersey-based investor Haresh Tharani as a partner. Tharani purchased the shares of the Triad investors. Terms of the sale were not disclosed. Tharani is chairman of a private holding company based in New York that comprises real estate, private equity and clothing companies, including Dunning Golf and the Greg Norman Collection.
One of the priorities is to refurbish the aging hotel at Mid Pines and to upgrade the bar area, both indoors and outdoors. No start dates have been announced. The golf course at Mid Pines was renovated in 2012 by Southern Pines architect Kyle Franz, who has worked with famous designers such as Tom Doak and Gil Hanse. Franz also assisted Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2010 with their redesign of Pinehurst No. 2.
The Mid Pines project received rave reviews, with Golf Magazine rating it as the best resort renovation of 2013. Miller hired Franz last year to rebuild greens and reconfigure bunkers at Pine Needles. Now, the golf aspect of the resort is firmly in place. It’s what’s off the course that presents the challenge.
“We are proud of our courses,” Miller says. “Now, what we really want to do is enhance the hospitality experience — rooms, food, beverage, amenities and programming, as well.”