Calvin Peete PGA Star
Self-Taught African-American Champion Dies at 71
Calvin Peete was a fine golfer, and a successful one on the PGA Tour back in the day, but no one knows precisely why or how he did it. By all accounts, he did it all wrong. Born in Detroit in 1943, Peete was a field worker trying to scratch out a living for himself and his family, and by his own description, it wasn’t going very well. He saw how pro golfers were taking home absurdly large checks, and just decided, “Hey, I want to do that.” That’s just wrong. You don’t look at a high-skill game being played by the world’s best and say a thing like that – but Calvin Peete did.
Picking corn and beans, as a way of learning how to play the game of golf, is all wrong. You just don’t do it that way. It doesn’t work. Calvin Peete, though, decided to take up the game at the age of 24. That’s all wrong, too. If you’re going to be good at this thing, you’d better start early, and if you’re going to go pro, you’d better very good very early. Even if you’re a major talent, starting golf at that age will land you on the senior tour at best.
Calvin Peete did the unthinkable for the PGA Tour. He taught himself. With all the millions spent on teachers and coaches, he taught himself – we know that’s not right – can’t have someone like that around, someone who goes his own way and makes instinctive decisions.
Everyone knows that one of the most basic principles of the golf swing is to keep one’s left arm straight, but Calvin Peete couldn’t do that. He’d fallen out of a tree as a kid, and his broken arm never set just right. He couldn’t fully extend it. Ah, too bad, better find some other sport to try. Not Calvin Peete. He just learned to play the game without a straight left arm – that’s just wrong, not the way it’s done.
According to the dictates of some back in the 70s and 80s, Calvin Peete was the wrong color to play golf. There were country clubs he couldn’t visit, and tournaments he couldn’t enter, front doors he couldn’t pass through, and professional friendships he couldn’t forge. Clearly, he was in the wrong line of work, and going about it all in the wrong way.
And yet, once Peete picked up a golf club as a relatively old man for what he called “this silly game,” he broke 80 within the space of six months. He broke par within the first year. Four years into his foolish experiment, he won the Milwaukie Open in ’79 by five shots over Lee Trevino and several others. He won twelve times on the tour, and came within a few shots of winning a couple of majors. He led the PGA driving accuracy ratings with a bum arm for ten straight years, ’81 – ’91. He won four tournaments in 1982, and was tied with Tom Watson and Craig Stadler for that number. He aced out Jack Nicklaus for the Vardon Trophy, signifying low scoring average, in 1984. He had two-win seasons in ’83, ’85, ’86 with three top four major finishes. He played on two Ryder Cup teams with a winning mark. Earning around two and a half million in his career, playing the “silly” game, and all wrong, he was inducted into the African-American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
Peete was not the first pioneering black golfer before Tiger Woods. There was Charllie Sifford, Lee Elder, and Pete Brown. But in doing it all wrong, he’s still one of the important barrier breakers in the game. Sadly, he died of lung cancer in Atlanta this week, at the age of 71 – that seems all wrong as well. In learning how he managed to take on the world’s best tour and win there, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t have done it all wrong. It certainly worked for Calvin Peete.