A quarter of a century earlier he had been a skinny youngster wearing a sweat-stained T shirt, bending over in a field that all but steamed and hissed under a brutal Florida sun. Last July his dark arm reached out again, not for green beans or lettuce but for something entirely different. No longer were Calvin Peete's trousers filthy with loam, nor was he an uneducated stoop laborer, a picker with no future beyond his next bushel. Instead, Peete was on the 18th green at the Tuckaway Country Club in Milwaukee, surrounded by thousands of golf fans and by reporters, photographers and tournament officials in blazers. The sun was shining, but benignly. Calvin Peete bent down, and this time picked up a golf ball. He had just won the Greater Milwaukee Open.
How far a man travels, how much he improves his life from start to finish, is a fair gauge of success. By such standards, Calvin Peete is nothing short of exceptional. First of all, there is his color. Peete is a black man in a white man's sport. Also, because of a childhood accident in which his left elbow was fractured in three places, he cannot straighten that arm. Furthermore, he is a product of poverty, one of 19 children his father had in two marriages, an eighth-grade dropout who labored in the fields of south central Florida with no better prospects than to work like a mule for the rest of his life. Pure chance put him on a golf course for the first time 14 years ago. And finally, Calvin Peete is the golf pro with two diamonds in his front teeth.
Now to be black and a professional golfer is noteworthy, but to be a black professional golfer with jewelry in your mouth, that is something else. Golf is a grand old game, content to be a little musty, a sport in which change comes slowly. But it does change, and Peete is proof of its evolutionary nature. The roots of black golf are thin, but they exist. The first black golfers, Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller, came along 30 years ago. Today they are all but forgotten, but without them Peete could not be what he is now: a tournament winner and a member in good standing of the PGA club.
Because Rhodes and Spiller were significant, Peete can be special, can flash his diamonds at the Establishment, because, paradoxically, he is no longer very special. In 1974, when Lee Elder became the first black to qualify for the Masters, he had to hire a public-relations man to handle his publicity and personal appearances. Last year, a month before Milwaukee, Peete finished high enough at the U.S. Open to earn an exemption to this season's Masters—and hardly anyone noticed. As Peete puts it, "To be first at something is a different song."
March 24, 1980
Nevertheless, to accomplish what he has, Peete has had to have diamond-cut diamond resolve. From the beginning—almost from the moment he hit his first golf ball—Peete believed he could become a tournament golfer although, at about the same age, Jack Nicklaus had already won the U.S. Open. To Peete golf was a game, and after what he had endured as a child, he figured any game could be learned.
Peete was born in Detroit on July 18, 1943 and lived the first 10 years of his life there, the youngest of his mother's nine children. Then his parents separated, and his mother sent him to his grandmother's place outside Hayti, in the bootheel of Missouri. "You can call it a farm, I guess," says Peete. "She had some chickens and a few turkeys. But it was better than the streets." Two years later his father, who had remarried and was living in Pahokee in Florida's Palm Beach County, came to Hayti to retrieve Calvin. "We're going to start a new family," he told his son. Eventually his father and stepmother had 10 children. Thus Peete went from being the youngest of nine kids to the oldest of 11, from the baby of the family to, in effect, the firstborn. He took his responsibilities seriously.
Think of Florida and you think of salt water, sandy beaches and palm trees. But Pahokee is on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, 50 miles inland, almost in the center of the peninsula. It is hot, flat, vegetable-growing country on the edge of the Everglades. Pahokee is well on the other side of paradise. Yet Peete, his schoolteacher wife Christine and their four children still live nearby, in the community of Clewiston. One imagines that the area is a kind of touchstone for Peete.
Calvin worked beside his father in the fields, giving most of what he earned to his parents. Alongside him toiled people from various Caribbean countries. Few could speak English, and most had no concept of the value of U.S. money. "They just took what they were offered," says Peete. "A lot of them couldn't count."
As a picker Calvin rose at 5:30 a.m. and toiled all day. Pickers aged fast. Today, at 36, Peete looks five years older. "It was very hard work," he says. "It was demanding, and the pay was really low. For corn you might get a dollar an hour, but usually you were paid by the bushel. I always thought, 'The harder I work, the more money I'll make.' To me, it was very demeaning. It had no standing at all. It was about as low as you could get." But he holds no grudges, except that today he refuses to grow even a small garden. Peete has had enough of vegetables.
As he worked under the blazing sun, Peete noted the visits of peddlers from Miami who regularly came to sell pants, shoes, shirts—perhaps a cheap suit—to the field hands, few of whom had cars. When he was 17, Peete got himself a peddler's license, loaded up a 1956 Plymouth station wagon and began selling and buying up and down the East, as far north as Rochester, N.Y. He found he could make $200 a week.
He sold clothing and trinkets and gaudy jewelry to migrant workers. His customers came to know him and buy from him because he was the Diamond Man. Instinctively aware of what "image" meant, Peete had persuaded a dentist to install two diamond chips in the bridgework at the front of his mouth. He figures the diamonds are worth about $500 on today's market, and he is about ready to cash them in. They have served their purpose.
When he became a peddler, Peete moved from Pahokee to Fort Lauderdale and there met the man who was to become the great benefactor in his life. He was Benjamin Widoff, and he owned a good deal of rental property. Discerning in Peete a man willing to work, he let Calvin buy several apartments for only $400 down. "I kept selling clothes for capital," says Peete. "In time I guess I wound up owning maybe $200,000 worth of property he sold me. He was an awfully good man."
Note, if you will, that in a 10-year span Peete had progressed from farm laborer to peddler to apartment-house owner. He was 23 years old and ready to be overwhelmed by golf. While he was on a selling trip up North, a couple of buddies persuaded him to go with them to a fish fry. But they took him instead to a public golf course. Peete, who had thought of golf as a "dumb" game, played a few holes and was hooked.
He went back to Fort Lauderdale and grappled with the sport at a public park on a spit of land not much larger than a parking lot. He practiced from dawn to dusk, hitting and picking up, emptying his shag bag, then gathering up the balls and hitting them again. He was both pupil and professor, teaching himself by reading instructional books and by studying sequence pictures of his swing that he managed to take by himself with a motor-driven camera mounted on a tripod. He learned how to grip a club when he went to buy a golf glove. The salesman took a long look at his right hand, blistered and raw from holding clubs in correctly, and showed him the right way.
Yet he was clearly a "natural." The first time he played a full 18-hole round, he shot 87. A year and a half later he was breaking par, an accomplishment the more remarkable because of his bent left arm. Every neophyte knows that the cardinal rule of golf is to keep the left arm straight.
As a teen-ager, Peete had tried to fill in some of his educational blanks by reading as much as possible, choosing titles with an eye to practicality. Shakespeare, for instance, was out. "I couldn't see where anything he had to say would help me," says Peete. He applied the same pragmatism to golf. He gambled little because he was trying to learn the game, not win money, but when he did make occasional minor wagers he insisted they be contested at medal, rather than match, play. Weekend golfers make their bets at match play; the pros count nothing but strokes. Peete was thinking pro.
One of his good friends in those early days was Dr. Gordon Merritt, a Fort Lauderdale dentist. In the beginning, for every stroke Merritt shot under 83, Cal paid him $2. If Peete shot under 72, the dentist would shell out $2 a stroke. "He used to keep me clean," Merritt recalls. "He would practice all day. I'd go by the park in the morning on the way to work and there he'd be, hitting balls. He'd still be there when I went home."
Such was Peete's desire that often he would wake up in the middle of the night and begin thinking about his golf swing. In the wee hours he would get up, put on his clothes, drive over to the park and hit practice shots under the dim glow of streetlights. Occasionally, a local resident would telephone the police.
It was three years before Peete saw his first golf tournament on television; he always preferred to play on weekend afternoons. And even when he began to watch, he never could sit through an entire telecast. His thoughts would turn to his own game and he would rush off to the driving range. He kept notebooks that detailed the components of his swing, and he still refers to them. Time was important because the calendar was against him. Moments spent watching golf could be better spent playing it. Although there were several pro tournaments each spring in the Fort Lauderdale area, Peete never went to any as a spectator. The first pro tournament he saw was one in which he played.
In 1971, five years after he took up the game, Peete turned professional. He was 0 for 2 in his first attempts to earn the qualifying card he needed to join the PGA tour. Undeterred, he played in black tournaments and in "mini-tour" events. In those days he wore shiny boots with golf spikes and drove a Cadillac. He says it was maroon. Others recollect that it was pink. Jim Simons remembers Peete in 1972. Simons had turned pro after an outstanding amateur career, and he was honing his game at mini-tour events around Tampa. In one of them, he and Peete tied for the title. "I was really playing good," Simons recalls. "I thought, 'How did this black man ever tie me?' I found out quick enough in the playoff. On the first hole he drove it right down the middle, then hit a wedge about a foot from the hole. That was that."
In 1975 Peete finally earned his PGA card. He joined the regular tour the next season but at first had only limited success, winning about $21,000 in each of his first three years. Peete practiced and drove himself so hard, cutting corners on food and accommodations, that friends worried about him. Often he would finish playing and then have to repair his automobile in order to drive to the next pro stop. The Cadillac had traveled 160,000 miles when it finally expired.
Peete's grandmother once told him, "You can give out, but don't give up." Finally, last year he broke through, tying for 11th in the Open, winning at Milwaukee and finishing second the next week in the Quad Cities Tournament. Altogether, there were seven finishes in the Top 10 and $122,481 in earnings, good for 27th on the PGA money list. But even more important was the realization that he finally was a fixture on the pro circuit. He belonged.
Think a minute about how far he had come—and, before him, Bill Spiller, Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown and Lee Elder, who has won four tournaments and last year made the Ryder Cup team. Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. It was not until 1961 that the PGA struck the "Caucasian clause" from its bylaws, a rule stipulating whites-only membership. The clause was erased after the attorney general of California refused to allow the PGA to hold a tournament in that state because the organization was discriminatory. Until then, a few blacks, Charlie Sifford for one, had played on the tour at the whim of individual tournament directors, and rarely in the South. Sifford, who was on the pro circuit in 1964, never played below the Mason-Dixon Line. "When the tour left the U.S.," he said, "I left the tour."
Spiller, now 66, was among the black pioneers. As a young man he clearly deserved the chance to play pro golf; in 1948, when he was allowed to compete in the Los Angeles Open, he shot a 68 in the first round, a score that tied Ben Hogan. But years of systematic exclusion eroded his talents. As late as 1960 he was photographed standing forlornly outside the entrance to a PGA tournament in Long Beach, his golf clubs beside him, carrying a sign that charged racial discrimination. Now Spiller, who lives in L.A., works three days a week as a skycap at the airport. On Saturdays he gives an occasional lesson at a driving range.
The week after Spiller shot his 68, he was barred from an event at Richmond, Calif. The Caucasians-only rule was cited. Spiller and Rhodes, who may have been the best black golfer ever, a player Spiller refers to as "the king," filed a $315,000 damage suit against the PGA. The action was dropped when the PGA agreed to give the players applications for "playing privileges."
Three years ago Spiller was in the hospital convalescing from an operation. He used the time to write an article condemning racial discrimination at private country clubs, and showed it to a doctor. The man seemed surprised. "Oh," said the doctor. "Do you play golf?" Spiller never entered more than five PGA-sanctioned events in one year. That occurred in 1953, and by then he was 40 years old.
In 1952 the PGA had said blacks could enter tournaments under an "approved entry" classification. At one of the year's first tournaments, the Phoenix Open, a local variety store sold Confederate caps at a reduced rate and a radio announcer wore one while reporting results from the scoreboard.
Sifford often has been called "the Jackie Robinson of golf," but he stubbornly rejects the designation, because it is inaccurate. Both Spiller and Rhodes slightly preceded him. But when he finally got his chance, Sifford was the most persistent. Between 1960 and 1969, he never missed making the Top 60 in winnings. He drove from tournament to tournament in his own car, first to save money, second so that he never had to ask anyone for a courtesy car. "I never liked to be told no," he says.
Sifford was practicing at an L.A. public course one day when an onlooker asked him what his handicap was. "This," said Sifford, pinching his skin. And when he finally played in the South, he was treated disgracefully. At the 1969 Greater Greensboro Open a group of men followed him, taunting, "Miss it, nigger." The early black golfers all understood their vulnerability. "They couldn't touch Jackie Robinson in a ball park, but they could touch me," Sifford said.
In the early days Sifford had supported himself by serving as singer Billy Eckstine's valet. Says Sifford today, "I'm 56 years old and I still play a pretty good game. Suppose I had been playing when I was 20 or 21? I would have won 10 times more than the $340,000 I did over 20 years." He virtually retired from the pro tour in 1975, after missing the Top 60 list, and took a job at a public golf course in Brecksville, Ohio. That same year he won the PGA Seniors title.
Discrimination has diminished sharply by now, and Calvin Peete can live with what's left. He even suspects that someday he will join a country club. "I've found that whites discriminate against whites, too," he says. "Certain classes of people don't want to associate with other classes of people. But now, if you've got the money, you can find a country club to join."
A country club! A few years ago the only way he could have gotten in would have been by carrying a silver coffeepot.
Bigotry can be as resilient as concrete, but once it cracks, no mortar can cement it again, and whenever one of the pioneer black golfers knocked down a barrier it stayed down. They got through the front gates, then into the clubhouse, and then up on the leader board, and those advances represented territory Calvin Peete never had to struggle for. Sifford could not have done what he did had not Rhodes and Spiller preceded him, and Pete Brown, who has won $212,498 in 17 years, could not have done it without Sifford. Or Elder without Brown, Sifford et al.
When Peete took up golf in 1966 and decided to make it his career, he knew two things: how much money Nicklaus earned and that there were black players out there on the tour. As yet, no black has won a major title, and that is one of Peete's ambitions. Another is to provide his children with a good home and an education.
While Peete has been accepted on the PGA tour, he has not been completely assimilated. He and the other black golfers are still semi-curiosities. The situation manifests itself in odd ways, such as when Peete's fellow professionals, players raised with country-club spoons in their mouths, sometimes take to acting as if they were ghetto-born. They will slap palms and cry out, "Cal, my man, what be happenin'?" What be happenin'? Peete answers them in careful English. His speech is not Boston Brahmin, but it is correct and clearly enunciated. Save for the diamonds, there is nothing jive about him.
Peete, in fact, is a reserved, pensive man, by his own admission "a loner." He has never had a roommate. His clothing runs to the somber. On the course, he seems impassive, almost gloomy. His face is hidden beneath a visor and behind sunglasses. He wears a mustache and his mouth turns down morosely at the corners.
His close friends on the circuit are about equally divided between white and black. His sponsor, a supermarket man named Lowell Beggs from Amboy, Ill., is white. So is Carlton White, his partner in the annual Disney World National Team Championship, and for that matter so is Beverly Klass, his partner last year in the Mixed Team Championship that pairs the top PGA and LPGA golfers.
His alliance with Klass says something about the sort of man and golfer Peete is. Last year it was the men's turn to "invite," and Peete's first choice was a family friend and top player on the women's circuit, but she already had a partner. Peete then asked Klass, a fringe LPGA player. Shortly thereafter, Peete's original choice telephoned to say her pairing had fallen through. But Peete did not react by dumping Klass, even though the Mixed Team was a $400,000 tournament. Instead, he flew to California and practiced with her for a week, giving her tips, mostly mental, that helped her game.
Before the start of last season Peete reviewed films of his swing, and when the tour opened on the West Coast he stayed in Florida to practice. He started competing again in March and improved his scoring average throughout the year, winning all but $2,500 of his $122,481 in prize money after May 1. He tied for 1lth in the U.S. Open in Toledo, which qualified him for the Masters, and a month later he put together four straight rounds in the 60s, closing with a 65 to win at Milwaukee by five strokes. At the time Peete quipped, "The hole kept getting in the way of the ball."
Though Peete is 36, his future is promising because golf is a sport in which the athletic arteries take a long time to harden. "Right now, if I finish out of the Top 20," he says, "I feel like I played bad that week." He figures he still has five or six seasons left. He is in good shape and exercises to stay that way, and his reflexes are sharp, partly because he plays some basketball. He likes defense, the sport's drudgery.
Now in his fifth year on the tour, he is whacking away, picking up $600 here, $1,200 there, trying to get back into the groove.
Even if he never regains it, Calvin Peete must be judged a success. He has come so far. Tom Watson is a great golfer, but he was born to the game. Peete's circumstances were as different as black from white.
Thirty years ago Peete could have been good enough to tie Ben Hogan, and golf would have turned him into a baggage handler. Now things are different. Seven black golfers have PGA cards. Others are knocking at the door. Golf changes, and Calvin Peete is proof of that. The days of empty pockets and stoop labor are long past, faded away like Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes. But one constant remains for Peete. On off days he will practice from morning until dusk, hitting shag balls and walking out to gather them up. He's always been a helluva picker.