Obituary: Calvin Peete
Golfer overcame poverty and childhood injury to blaze a trail for black players
Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30
Calvin Peete, who died recently aged 71, was, before Tiger Woods, the black golfer with the most PGA tour wins; his 12 victories included four in 1982, and 11 during a four-year peak which culminated in his win at the 1985 Players Championship.
His peak was short in part because he came late to the sport and was practically self-taught; he did not join the tour until he was 32. His success was the more remarkable because he had climbed from a childhood marked by poverty and disruption. It was notable also for the gruelling hard grind that he put in, not least to overcome his own physical limitations to become an outstanding golfer.
Peete stood as the final link uniting Woods, who joined the PGA tour in 1996, and the half-century of struggle for racial equality in the sport.
Calvin Peete was born on July 18, 1943 in Detroit, where his father was a worker in the car industry. When Calvin was 11 his parents separated; he and eight siblings were scattered. Calvin and two sisters moved to Missouri to live with his maternal grandmother; his mother left for Chicago and never returned.
Calvin fell out of a tree at the age of 12 and broke his elbow; it was set badly and fused, leaving his left arm permanently bent. Moving to Florida with his father, he left school at 14 and worked as a farm labourer, picking beans and corn and cutting sugar cane. It was tough work performed in blazing heat all day - "from can to cain't", as Peete put it.
Looking for something easier, he moved to upstate New York, where he sold dry goods to migrant workers out of a car. It was there, at the age of 23, that he was taken to a golf course for the first time. "I couldn't get a ride home, so I went along with the fool idea," he said later. "Who wants to chase a ball under the hot sun?"
He was hooked immediately, and began playing incessantly, studying books written by the masters to learn the game. One of the golden rules of the golf swing is to keep your left arm straight; Peete developed a style to allow for his crooked arm, and developed remarkable accuracy.
Within six months he had broken 80; six months later he was hitting par. It took another eight years, but Peete finally got his PGA card in 1976. He was 32. He won his first tournament, the Milwaukee Open, in 1979, qualifying for the 1980 Masters.
For 10 consecutive years he led the PGA in hitting fairways with his drives. In 1984 he had the lowest stroke average on the tour, pipping Jack Nicklaus to the Harry Vardon trophy.
He never played well at Augusta, however, with its history of genteel racism and its humourless, pompous conventions. He once remarked that "to ask a black man what he feels about the traditions of the Masters is like asking him how he feels about his forefathers who were slaves". On the tour he quickly earned the soubriquet "Mr Accuracy".
Jack Nicklaus wanted Peete for the 1983 Ryder Cup team, but rules required golfers to possess a high-school education. Peete, therefore, studied for and passed an examination which gave him an "equivalency diploma".
He was part of the Cup team that won narrowly in 1983 and he returned two years later when the American team lost to the Europeans for the first time.
In 1990, Peete joined the Senior Tour. Five years later he retired to Ponte Vedra beach in Florida, near the celebrated Sawgrass course, where he had won the Players Championship. His career earnings were more than $2m. With his second wife, Pepper, Peete was active in local junior golf programmes, and in helping stage PGA events. In 1999, he was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, and gradually withdrew from public life.
Calvin Peete's first marriage ended in divorce. Peete, who died on April 29, is survived by his second wife, three sons and two daughters from his first marriage and two daughters from his second.