NC trend: Moore County preps for pinnacle event for women’s golf

 In November 2021

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Hope Holding Bryant, vice chairman of First Citizens BancShares, laughs when she thinks back to her involvement with the U.S. Women’s Open in 1996, the first of three times that Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines has hosted the major championship.

“Golf was probably a little more pronounced in the workplace then than it is today. Very early on I realized I could either play golf or I could stay back in the office and answer the phone for all the men who were playing golf,” she says. “The decision to play golf came very easily.”

Famed golfer Annika Sorenstam

Famed golfer Annika Sorenstam is planning to play in her first U.S. Women’s Open since 2008. She won the tournament at Pine Needles in 1996.

From June 2 to 5, the U.S. Golf Association will hold the 77th U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles with 75,000 fans expected to attend. This tournament, considered the ultimate competition in women’s golf, is projected to create an economic impact of about $20 million.

The purse is likely to match the $5.5 million awarded at this year’s championship in San Francisco. It will be aired on NBC and the Golf Channel and draws professionals and amateurs from about 25 countries.

These numbers make it hard to remember golf was largely seen as a man’s game, especially for amateurs, until a few decades ago. Bryant is co-chairing the Open steering committee with Kathy Higgins, CEO of the Raleigh-based Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit that advocates for children. It is one of 14 national championships conducted annually by the USGA. It is open to professional female golfers and amateur females with a handicap index that doesn’t exceed 2.4.

Like Bryant, Higgins has made golf a part of her life and career, which includes 30 years with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina.

“Golf puts women in a position to network in a much different way,” she says. “When you’re in the boardroom and on the green, you are in conversations that have traditionally been exclusive to men. It creates an opportunity for conversations with access to information and decision-making.”

Spending several hours outside together also allows time to form personal connections with clients and coworkers as well as friends and family. 

“I spend a lot of my time in markets outside of North Carolina. Several of my direct reports are in California,” Bryant says. “Playing golf with them enables me to forge really personal relationships that make managing them from a distance much more effective.”

The Holding family-controlled First Citizens is acquiring New York-based CIT, creating a national company with assets topping $100 billion. Federal regulators were still studying the deal in mid-October. Both women see the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open as a distinctive vehicle for business people — male and female — to build their business relationships.

“It’s very accessible. You don’t have to devote the entire week to it. You can get there from Greensboro or Charlotte or Wilmington or Raleigh very easily, so you can either make it a day trip or stay overnight,” Bryant says. “You get four or five hours out there with no cell phones. It’s a wonderful escape.”

Tournament organizers are offering options ranging from individual tickets for one day to packages for groups for several days with access to food and beverage pavilions and rounds of golf.

Peggy Kirk Bell’s legacy

The Open has developed a reputation for being fan friendly. “The (competitors) are so engaging with autographs. You can get so close to the rope lines and really see all the golf and follow it,” says Allison Burns, the event’s senior championship manager. “It’s really neat to see how much it means to the players to see their fans and to see those junior golfers.”

Kinsley Smith, 16, of Raleigh plans to volunteer at the tournament and already has a favorite. “I like Nelly Korda because she won the Olympics this year and she’s really accomplished,” says Smith, a St. David’s School student who has a 1.6 handicap and practices three to four hours a day. “And I like Lexi Thompson because she hits the ball really hard. She’s not afraid. She just goes after it.” Thompson was 12 when she became the youngest qualifier at the 2007 Open at Pine Needles.

Smith started playing golf at age 8. She competes on the Peggy Kirk Bell Girls Golf Tour, which is organized by Girls Golf of America, a Greensboro-based nonprofit. Bell was an LPGA Tour charter member who owned the Pine Needles resort from 1953 until her death in 2016.

“The backdrop (of the tournament) is the legend of Peggy Kirk Bell. Mrs. Bell has a legacy as a golfer, as supporting the game of golf and as supporting the business of golf,” Higgins says.

Bell popularized “Golfaris” or “golfing safaris” for men and women. They were especially important for women who were hesitant to pick up a club for the first time at their local private or public course full of men who had been playing golf for years.

“Her approach was to break down the game of golf into bite-size learning opportunities. She just had a certain levity about her and a philosophy that golf should be fun,” Higgins says.

Bryant counts Bell as a mentor she got to know through golf and by being involved with the U.S. Women’s Open each time it’s been hosted by Pine Needles.

“The forum provided an opportunity to develop really personal relationships with people like [former Duke Energy executive] Roberta Bowman and Kathy,” she says. “I have friendships and business partnerships through this that have lasted decades.”

Her golf game has progressed as well, though not as much as Bell might hope.

“My handicap is a solid 19,” Bryant laughs. “I’m definitely spending more time on the job than on the course.” 

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