Against the Grain II

Don’t forget the legacy of Calvin Peete

Vaughn Wilson

As a kid, I remember my dad going out to the golf course whenever he got a chance to play.  He and his buddies and my uncle Charles George made up quite the foursome. Adding Sam Broadnax and Johnnie Williams, you couldn’t tell them they weren’t on the PGA Tour. I recently came across some old film of them playing together and it is just amazing to see them having fun together playing a sport not common to Blacks.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the PGA Tour actually came to town.  Killearn Country Club used to host the Centel Open. My father and his buddies went out at least one time and I could hear the excitement in their voices. I heard my dad confirming on the phone with one of his buddies “Yes, he’s going to be there.”

The excitement was about the most successful Black golfer before the emergence of Tiger Woods, Calvin Peete. Peete would win 12 tournaments as a professional, including a signature win at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in 1985.

He didn’t grow up in an easy life. He learned golf in New York at the age of 20, much too late for most people to start. But, he loved the game and it was a refuge from his tough upbringing.  His family did not have the finances for proper health care, resulting in a broken arm that he had sustained not being properly set for healing.  He used that to his advantage.

“It turns out that as I played golf, I couldn’t straighten out my arm which forced me to keep it straight throughout my swing.  I ended up using it to my advantage,” Peete once said. 

The result was tremendous driving accuracy. He actually led the PGA Tour in driving accuracy for 10 straight years. It was his signature advantage.

He played twice on the U.S. Ryder Cup team (1983, 1985) and later in his career won two tournaments on the Japan Golf Tour.

When the McCormack Top World Golf Rankings debuted in 1984, Peete garnered a top 10 ranking. He had quite a career, despite the disparities that still existed on the PGA Tour.

While Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford are considered the pioneers of Black professional golf, it was Peete who elevated Black golf to the primetime spotlight.  His laid-back style was perfect for bridging the gap with Whites who did not want Blacks to participate in golf. Many of the segregational barriers in golf were in full swing during Peete’s tenure.

Gradually they would begin to recede. Winning The Players Championship in 1985, which many consider as the “fifth major,” the spotlight was squarely on the shoulders of Peete.  During this time, golf was mainly broadcasted on the back nine of the final day of the tournament. All eyes were on Peete. At one point all that was left was to navigate the island 17th hole and walk away with the win, which he did.

Many consider winning that tournament the high point in professional golf for Blacks until the emergence and historic career of Tiger Woods. Peete was the right guy to carry the torch and in reality showed that Blacks could compete on the PGA Tour. He did so without the college training, junior golf training or lifetime mentorship that many of the world’s best golfers, including Woods, were able to enjoy. He won with class.

He made his way on grit. Before “Tiger red” on Sunday was his signature, Peete’s Kangol-styled Gatsby hat was his trademark.  A quiet and unassuming man, he passed away in 2015 from lung cancer. Still, we cannot let the legacy of one of the greatest transcenders of the sport fade into oblivion.