Golf's most unlikely success story
Despite a late start in the game, and self-made swing, Calvin Peete willed his way into the center of golf history.
February 21, 2017
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
Calvin Peete thought he was going to a clambake.
At least, that’s where he and his buddies often ended up on sultry summer afternoons in upstate New York.
The music would be loud and the fish sizzled in the piping hot oil as the clams, steaming over a fire, slowly opened. You certainly couldn’t beat the company or the cuisine.
“I had gone to one or two of them before, and met some interesting people,” Peete said. “And so naturally that's what I was expecting when they came by and picked me up.”
Peete’s friends had other ideas, though. They headed to Genesee Valley Golf Club in southwestern Rochester, N.Y., cut off the engine and got out of the car.
“And they said, Calvin, we got you out here, you either play golf or wait until we finish,” Peete recalled.
When they weren’t hustling in the local pool hall, his friends picked up extra cash as caddies. But Peete thought golf was a “sissy” game, reserved for staid businessmen and senior citizens.
“The only kids that you would see playing golf, you look at them as little weaklings,” he said. “Golf did not have the rough and tumble of football and baseball and basketball, so I had no desire.”
That is, until Peete stood on the first tee and hit that first shot at Genesee Park.
Faced with the prospect of spending four hours waiting for his buddies in the parking lot, Peete had relented and rented clubs. Wrapping his fingers around the leather grips was transformative, according to author Pete McDaniel, who wrote, among other books, “Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf.
“He said when he first put his hands on a golf club, it felt like that's where they belonged,” McDaniel said. “He had found his calling, and then he knew that it was going to be his life from that moment on, and so he attacked the game.”
After 18 holes were in the books and Peete’s buddies drove him back to the hotel, in fact, he turned right around and went to the driving range. Peete’s single-minded determination fueled a session that lasted so long he all but lost track of time.
“He stayed there until the range manager told him, said, ‘I can't sell you any more golf balls because I've got to go home with my family,’” said Dr. Tony Parker, the historian at the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Peete was 23 years old, and he had finally found the direction for his life. Even so, to imagine that Peete, who died in 2015 after battling cancer, would go on carve out a career with 12 PGA TOUR victories was the stuff of fantasy.
Peete spent the early part of his life in Detroit, one of 19 children borne by Dennis Peete’s two wives. The family later moved to Pahoke, Fla., a small community in the south-central part of the state which was once known as the “winter vegetable capital of the world.”
The youngest of nine in the first marriage, Peete nonetheless says he never went hungry and always had clothes on his back. But it was a life of hand-me-downs, a “childhood of lacking,” Peete said, and he soon learned to fend for himself.
When he was in eighth grade, Peete quit school and started to work with his father in the nearby corn fields where on a good day he might put $10 in the family coffers. The work was literally back-breaking and physically draining, though, and Peete was always looking for a way out.
Eventually, Peete got a peddler’s license and according to an article in the New York Times, his grandmother helped him finance a 1956 Plymouth station wagon. He filled his car with clothes, jewelry and other staples, then followed the migrant workers up and down the East Coast, selling to the highest bidder.
Calvin Peete's incredible journey
In those days, Peete, who sported diamond chips in his front teeth and a modified Fu Manchu moustache, was a bit of a miscreant, according to McDaniel, who interviewed the late pro on many occasions with plans to write a biography. A hustler of sorts, he supplemented his income by shooting dice and pool and playing cards, basically doing what he needed to get by.
“And he was very successful, so he said,” McDaniel recalled. “He always was kind of a fashionista I guess you could say. He loved to dress and he loved to flash his diamond teeth.”
And so it was that Peete found himself with his buddies at Genesee Valley in Rochester that fateful day in 1966. He took to the game almost immediately and headed to Florida to further his new career.
Peete’s dream got even bigger one Sunday afternoon in 1968. A storm kept him from the golf course, and he turned to the TV where Jack Nicklaus and Lee Elder, along with Frank Beard, were locked in a playoff for the American Golf Championship title.
“And he said, there's a black man on the TOUR, and he had never known that before,” Parker said. “He didn't know anything about that. But he was so impressed with that, he goes, ‘I give myself six, maybe seven years, and I'm going to play on the TOUR.’
“… And he got very serious about it from there. “
“He said from that moment on, he knew that golf was going to be his profession. He said, if this guy can do it, I can do it, too, and that's how he … really became obsessed.”
Saying it and doing it are two very different things, though. And Peete had an additional challenge.
His left arm – the one that must be held as straight as possible during the golf swing – had been broken in three places when the 12-year-old fell out of a tree at his grandmother’s house. He also suffered from Tourette’s syndrome late in his career.
But Peete is self-taught, wearing out the pages in Ben Hogan’s classic instruction book, “Five Lessons.” So he crafted a swing that worked for him, and he made it repeat with practice-range sessions that lasted so long that his hands were bloodied. Dr. Scholl’s foot pads inserted in his gloves helped with the pain, according to the New York Times.
“He learned everything he needed to know about the importance of the grip, the importance of posture, an athletic posture, all of the stuff that he needed to learn, pronation, supination, all that stuff,” McDaniel said.
“He was able to absorb it, took it to the practice range, and he beat balls, and he beat balls, and he beat balls, and he developed his own golf swing.”
Within a year or 18 months, depending on whom you believe, Peete was breaking par on a regular basis. Either way, he was a quick study, turning pro in 1971 and competing on mini-tours like the United Golf Association and National Tournament Golfers Association.
Peete’s strength was in finding the fairway – he led the TOUR in driving accuracy for 10 years. Many people felt his childhood accident restricted his swing, kept it on target and took the big miss out of Peete’s game.
Parker remembers a round of golf he played with Kathy Whitworth, the LPGA pioneer whose 83 victories is more than any man or woman ever.
“She said she had played a charity event with Calvin, and Calvin hit every drive straight down the middle,” Parker said. ‘She said when she got off the course, she went over to Calvin and said, Calvin, me and the girls have been talking, we're going to go to the hospital and ask the doctors to fix our arm just like yours, so he did get a kick out of that.”
Peete’s short game was a work in progress, though, as he adapted to more manicured courses with each step up the ladder. He wasn’t the best of putters, either, but his confidence carried him through.
“He said, Jack Nicklaus and guys like that who were just great putters, you know, would certainly have an edge over him, but there was no one who believed in themselves more than he did,” McDaniel said. “… He kind of willed his way to success.”
In more ways than one.
Peete took three stabs at the PGA TOUR qualifying school before earning his playing privileges in 1975. By then, he had found a financial backer that made life easier for Peete, who had been making ends meet with revenue from rental property and his first wife’s teacher’s salary.
At that time, only 60 players were fully exempt on the PGA TOUR each year. The others, who were called “rabbits,” had to go through Monday qualifiers where only a small percentage earned spots in that week’s tournament.
Travel was expensive and there were no guarantees. The purses were a fraction of what the prize money is now. But Peete made steady progress, posting a pair of top-10s in each of his first three seasons and picking up his first win, among seven top-10s, in a breakout 1975 campaign.
A year after getting his TOUR card, Peete qualified for the U.S. Open where he played with Jack Nicklaus in the final round. A few weeks later, his final-round playing partner was Arnold Palmer.
“And it's funny because they asked him, did you ever feel that you shouldn't be here, and he said no,” Parker said. “I've always known that this is where I'm supposed to be.
“He not only had the drive and commitment, but he certainly I don't know if you want to call it destiny or whatever, but he felt that's where he was supposed to be. “
McDaniel feels similarly. “He was an unlikely success story, as unlikely a success story as the PGA TOUR ever saw,” Peete’s long-time friend said.
Among Peete’s 12 victories was the 1985 PLAYERS Championship, then known as the Tournament Players Championship, where he beat D.A. Weibring by three strokes. From 1982-86, Peete was the winningest player on TOUR and played on two Ryder Cup teams, even getting his high school equivalency degree so he could represent the U.S. He also won the 1984 Vardon Trophy, edging Jack Nicklaus, and the Byron Nelson Award.
“I liked what one fellow said, especially in 1985 when Calvin won THE PLAYERS, that he not only won THE PLAYERS Championship but he won the crowd,” Parker said.
“I think that's wonderful right there because he had already … gained the respect of the other players, but I think at THE PLAYERS when he said ‘in my mind I won a major, I won the TPC,’ and so he had played with the best, against the best, and came out victorious, which is outstanding.”
The Official World Golf Ranking was introduced in 1986. Only one archived ranking for that year can be found on the website, and Peete was 10th prior to the Masters that year. Many feel he could have been considered a top-five player in previous years.
Peete’s peers knew, though. Nicklaus, who captained him at the 1983 Ryder Cup, called Peete a “remarkable” player.
“He overcame a lot of adversity, including a physical limitation, to become a very, very good golfer,” Nicklaus told the Palm Beach Post after Peete died. “… Over the years, we played a lot of golf together, and I was amazed at what he could get out of his game. He was an extremely straight driver of the golf ball; a very smart golfer; and, you might say, he was very much an over-achiever.
“Off the golf course, Calvin was a tremendously warm and caring man. I always liked Calvin, and enjoyed a great relationship with him. We always had fun together. Calvin gave so much of himself to the game and to others, and there are countless young men and women whose lives he touched through The First Tee and other organizations, who owe Calvin a debt of gratitude.”
Interestingly, though, for all his success, Peete has been somewhat overshadowed in the hierarchy of African-American golfers.
“Other than Tiger, (he’s) the most successful African American or person of color on the PGA TOUR, and far and away the most successful,” McDaniel said. “The man was tough. 12 victories and all the driving accuracy records, and the way he comported himself. …
“He held himself to a very high standard. He was a gentleman.”
But Charlie Sifford, in particular, is seen as the trailblazer although there were others like Bill Spiller, Teddy Rhodes and Pete Brown who also endured the worst of the discrimination. And once Tiger Woods began his phenomenal career, he set standards no one, no matter what race, can approach.
“Calvin wins 12 TOUR events including the TPC, two Ryder Cup teams, '83 and '85, the winningest for a three, four year stretch there, wins the Vardon Trophy, wins the Byron Nelson trophy, and yet he's kind of an unseen guy because he's overshadowed by Charlie and then Tiger,” Parker said. “And then when Tiger comes on the scene, of course everybody forgets about him, and I think that's wrong. …
“I don't know if you'd call him the bridge, just call him the transition. He's the transition between the two. Charlie is the pioneer, Calvin is the we could almost say the foundation. He sets the standard, and then here comes Tiger.”