Miracles aren’t easy

Nobody taught Calvin Peete golf; he worked and grinded and crafted a great career

Picking fruits and vegetables day after day in the Florida sun will make a man think about the future. Buck O’Neil was out there for a time as a young man. One scorching day he was out picking celery on a farm near Sarasota when he stopped and shouted to the skies: “Damn, there’s GOT to be something better than this.”

For Buck O’Neil that something was baseball. He would spend his life around baseball.

Thirty years later, the young man in the field was Calvin Peete. He was an eighth-grade dropout with a permanently bent left elbow after a childhood accident. He had no sport to fall back on the way Buck O’Neil did, but Peete shared the same overwhelming hunger to find something else. Anything else.

And so he somehow got his hands on a used Plymouth station wagon, filled the thing up with clothes and cheap jewelry, and began driving north, peddling all along the way. He made it all the way up to New York. Buyers called Peete the “Diamond Man” because he’d had diamond chips situated in his dental work. Well, Peete knew how to get people’s attention.

He also knew the meaning of work; throughout his life he would come across people who simply admired his work ethic and wanted to help him succeed. One such admirer put Peete in the apartment renting business back in Florida. Another took him to a golf course to try out the game, a game Peete had long thought dumb. The first time Peete swung a golf club, he was 23 years old. And he was smitten.

There was not one logical reason for Calvin Peete to believe that he could succeed at golf. He was not a big man – he would be listed at 5-foot-10 but that was probably an exaggeration – and he could not hit the ball very far. His slightly mangled left elbow made it impossible to follow the cardinal rule of the game (“keep your left arm straight”). And, yes, he was African American – this at a time when most country clubs were segregated, when the Masters had never had a black player, when the rare black professional golfers (Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford) were often told to change their shoes in the parking lot rather than enter the clubhouse.

But Peete fell hard for the game. No, he became obsessed with it. Everything about golf fit his ordered mind. He would go out to a small public park in Fort Lauderdale every single day and just hit golf balls, collect them, hit them again, collect them. He hit golf balls so late into the night that, on occasion, people called the police.

Nobody taught him golf. He had never seen a tournament so he did not learn from watching others. He looked at some books, set up a camera that would take a few photos of his swing, and then invented a grip and a swing the felt right to him. One of my favorite Calvin Peete stories is that after hammering a million golf balls, he went to a golf shop to buy a glove (for a long time, he did not even know about gloves). The guy at the shop saw the calluses all over Peete’s hands and, in sympathy, showed Peete the proper way to grip a club. The grip that nameless salesman showed Peete was the one he would use to win 12 PGA Tour events and more than $2 million in earnings. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Golf is a game famed for its obsessives. Ben Hogan toiled in the dirt for countless hours before he found what he would call the secret. Stories about the work ethic of the young Tom Watson are everywhere; Lee Trevino remembered once noticing Watson hitting golf balls out of a practice bunker on pro-am day. Trevino found that odd; none of the professionals practiced on pro-am day. He didn’t think much more of it and he went to play his round of golf. Five or six hours later, he happened to be walking by the same bunker. He saw Watson still in it.

But it’s likely that none of them worked as hard or with as much obsession as Calvin Peete. He practiced all day and well into dark. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night with a thought about his swing, and he would get dressed and go hit golf balls in pitch blackness. He never stopped thinking about the game, never stopped trying to improve his swing. The first full round of golf he ever played, he shot 87. That’s a remarkable achievement. It was not nearly good enough for Peete. Within two years, he was regularly breaking par.

His strategy for playing golf was simple: Hit the ball straight. That was it. He didn’t hit it high, and he didn’t hit it far. But he hit it straight again and again and again. The rough did not exist for Calvin Peete. Trees were mere scenery. In the long history of golf, it is likely that no man ever hit a golf ball straighter. There are numbers to back up that claim.

Five years after he hit his first shot, Peete turned professional. For four years after that, he hacked around on various mini-tours and special African-American events. In 1975, he made it onto the PGA Tour. He missed the cut in his first four PGA Tour events. He did not have a top-five finish in his first 60 events. He would play one tournament, often make no money, revive his car, drive to the next event, play in it, often make no money and repeat. He ate so little during those years and worked so hard, that he lost 25 pounds and looked, as one friend said, “like he would collapse at any moment.”

But that drive of Peete’s was unique. In 1979, at the U.S. Open at Inverness, he tied for 11th and less than a month later – three days before he turned 36 years old – Peete won the Greater Milwaukee Open. He won it in style, too, birdieing six of the first 12 holes and finishing with a final-round 65. In winning, he became the second black player (after Lee Elder) to qualify for the Masters. The next week, he finished second at the Quad Cities Open, which pushed his earnings to more than $100,000 for the year.

“There was no way I thought I could do that,” he said in wonder.

It was just the beginning of a magnificent run. He won four times in 1982, won twice in 1983, won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average in 1984, and he won the Tournament Players Championship in 1985. He won more than $200,000 five years in a row. He also played on two Ryder Cup teams, compiled a 4-2-1 record, and combined with Tom Kite to defeat teams with Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer. He finished third in scorching heat at the 1982 PGA Championship and fourth at the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont. In all, he had more PGA Tour victories than Payne Stewart or Fuzzy Zoeller and just three fewer than Hall of Famer Fred Couples.

He achieved all this basically armed only with that arrow-straight swing. Look at these driving accuracy percentage numbers:

1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990
81.9 81.3 84.6 77.5 80.6 81.7 83.0 82.5 82.6 83.7

Yes, look at those numbers because you will never see any like them again. Peete led the Tour in driving accuracy every single one of those 10 years. Not only that, the highest percentage of drives in fairways since 1990 was Doug Tewell in 1993 – he hit 82.5 percent of his fairways in 63 rounds that year.

Calvin Peete over 10 YEARS hit 81.9 percent of his fairways. Repeat: Over 10 years.

And he did that with 1980s equipment. I once talked equipment with Peete at a Champions Tour event and he said, with all due modesty, that with these new clubs and new balls he would have NEVER missed a fairway. He certainly had the numbers to back up such a claim. Since 1980, Peete has the PGA Tour’s five highest driving accuracy percentages.

He got those numbers because he sacrificed all sorts of distance for accuracy. It wasn’t really a sacrifice … Peete simply could not hit the ball as far as most of the others. His weapons were straightness, solid long irons and an ability to make some long putts. The other golfers marveled that someone with such limited golfing talents could play the game so well. Jack Nicklaus meant it as the highest compliment when on Wednesday, in the hours after Calvin Peete’s death, he said: “He was very much an overachiever.”

He was even more than that. Calvin Peete was something of a miracle. There have been few people in America over the last half-century who were less likely to become a professional golfer. Calvin Peete became a great one. I once asked him about the motivation of being a picker in the field under a red hot Florida sun. He said, “I think that was my advantage. People would say to me, ‘Why do you work so hard on your game?’ I thought that was funny. Golf ain’t work.”