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His Was A Great Act of Faith

April 25, 1983
April 25, 1983

Table of Contents
April 25, 1983

Steve Garvey
Race For Ralph
Calvin Peete
Billy Ray
TV/Radio
Baseball
Horse Racing
Lacrosse
Rick Barry
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

His Was A Great Act of Faith

That Calvin Peete even considered golf as a career at 23 was, in the main, an affirmation of his belief in himself

Imagine yourself innocent of golf. Yet somehow here you are, wandering the cushiony expanses of a prestigious tournament, the Crosby in early February. At first you marvel at the splendid setting of the event, the descending verdant crescent of the 1st fairway at Spyglass Hill, fully 600 yards long, opening out through dark pines and cypresses to a view of the Pacific.

This is an article from the April 25, 1983 issue Original Layout

You are drawn on by how breathtakingly far the white speck of ball can be driven by the finest players. You walk with them, watching how precise men can be at lofting iron shots twice the length of a football field onto tiny greens. Their putts are comically delicate, satisfying in their sense of the final touch.

Yet you aren't unequivocally entranced. You have plenty of time to muse between shots, and you note that golf must be one of the most ludicrous of games, the farthest from any basic utility. It seems an acquired taste, an odd set of circumstances given meaning only by the depth of the players' and gallery's concern over where that ball comes to rest.

The absorbed spectators can fairly be regarded as a kind of Greek chorus, murmuring after each shot, imparting in those involuntary exhalations the received wisdom and lore of the game. True, many of these people are dressed as if they have been talked into impersonating Easter eggs, and some of the women obviously adhere to the structural school of coiffure. But their intentness saves them from ridicule.

Just now they are fixed on the approaching foursome of Tom Watson and Calvin Peete and their respective amateur partners, Bob Willits and Sandy Tatum. The whispering behind the tee teaches the eavesdropper that Tatum was the 1942 NCAA champion and is a past president of the USGA. "Watch the hitch in his backswing," it's said. Indeed, there is such a little pause. "Now Watson will be high and long," the chorus says. "And Peete, ah Peete, he'll be short and straight. He led the tour in driving accuracy last year, you know. Eighty-one percent of his drives are in the fairway." And so it comes to pass.

Yet when you get out along the fairway, you find that Peete's ball has actually come to rest only a few yards short of Watson's. "Nicklaus calls Peete 'sneaky long,' " confides the Easter-egg chorus. "Every year he drives farther."

Walking toward the green, which Peete has reached in regulation—"He led the tour in that, too"—the chorus fills the air with the remarkable Peete story, already a part of golfing folklore. "One of 19 children from his father's two marriages, he worked as a stoop laborer in the Florida fields when he was a boy. Became a traveling salesman of clothing and trinkets to migrant workers. Used to have two diamond chips in his front teeth to make an indelible impression on his clientele: the Diamond Man. Didn't pick up a golf club until he was 23. Has a left arm that cannot be straightened—his elbow was broken in three places when he fell out of a tree at 12—so it is some sort of miracle that he can even play, let alone hit so accurately, when everyone knows a good swing requires a straight left arm."

Thus enlightened, the observer better appreciates Peete's slightly syncopated walk. Unable to let his left arm fall completely to his side, he carries it jauntily as if touching an invisible banister.

The chorus continues reciting Peete's accomplishments: his four tournament victories in the last half of 1982, his $318,470 in winnings for the year, which ranked him fourth, one notch above Watson. As the gallery arranges itself about the green, there's heard this sentence, pronounced with moral relief, "Isn't it good for the game to finally get a really fine black golfer?" There are ripples of assent, giving rise to the momentary impression that perhaps golf is self-conscious about its historically clubby, moneyed, WASP-ish nature. There's a hush as Peete strokes his birdie putt. It slides by the hole. The gallery groans. "Oh, if only he could putt," comes the murmur, the final judgment.

Peete tied for second in the Crosby, steadily constructing rounds of 68 and three 70s. Later, Tatum spoke of the privilege of being Peete's partner: "It was an extraordinary experience for me. He's as competent a striker of the ball as I've ever seen, with the sole and singular exception of Ben Hogan, and he strikes it identically, time after time. In the whole of the Crosby he hit only three bad shots."

Tatum, too, is affected by how far Peete has come. "He doesn't have the physical equipment of Watson," Tatum says. "The left arm must impose some limits in working the ball. But he's a realist. He has developed the avenues open to him, and perfected them. It's rewarding to see what he has accomplished, not with raw talent but with intelligence. But think about how he had to be aware of the struggle he faced, and how great his act of faith, to believe in the face of those odds that he could be competitive...."

And now, continues Tatum, even at the relatively advanced age of 39, Peete surely hasn't peaked. Next for him? A major championship. "He has a better chance to win the Open than the Masters, perhaps, because the high rough puts a greater premium on accuracy in the Open. [Peete had a terrible Masters two weeks ago, finishing 49th after being in contention for 36 holes.] But concerning the crucial element of being able to deal with adversity, he was remarkable in the Crosby. After a three-putt or a bad shot he remained the composed, warm, relaxed man he began as. It occurred to me that his background may be a help to him there, that having gone through what he has, things like the breaks on the golf course don't seem so bad. I'm convinced his impact will transcend golf, that he's going well beyond where he is, and will be an exemplary figure."

These fragments of information and fond judgment have the curiously unsatisfying effect of raising more questions than they answer. Just what caused Peete to approach the sport so confidently? How did he come to assemble such a solid game? Did it involve a rearrangement of his psyche to make the transition from the Diamond Man to the calm golf pro? Given his engaging ways, it seems, it couldn't hurt to ask.

Some time later, among the electric-chartreuse vinyl furniture of the clubhouse at the Inverrary golf and tennis complex in Lauderhill, Fla., the opportunity presents itself. Peete has come from the tournament's Wednesday pro-am. The round has taken more than five hours, and his non-professional partners have produced their share of shanked and topped balls. Peete is asked whether it is troubling for a perfectionist to be in the company of those who aren't.

"You prepare yourself for that," he says easily. His face in repose can seem severe, but his voice and manner are gentle. He has long, sweeping eyelashes. "I enjoy playing in pro-ams. You meet important, nice, influential people. I realize that a lot of them haven't played much, so I just tell myself it's going to be a long day." This will be a recurring theme in the study of Peete, his two sets of standards, an exacting one for himself, a charitable one for others.

Peete has said that at the time he discovered golf, at 23, he also learned that Jack Nicklaus was making nearly $200,000 per year, and thereupon decided he could be happy with a third of that. This was, in effect, a cover story, a tale more plausible than the truth. In fact, at the moment he first struck a golf ball, spraying shots around a Rochester, N.Y. municipal course with friends, something transformed him, lightly at first, but then irresistibly.

"They had said we were going to a clambake," Peete says. "Instead, here was this golf thing. I couldn't get a ride home, so I went along with the fool idea. Before that, the only contact I'd had with a golf ball was when I was nine or 10, when we still lived in Detroit. I recall playing with one in an alley, being fascinated with how high it bounced when you threw it against the concrete."

The fascination in Rochester was something like that. The physical sensitivity of the man was suddenly absorbed in the task. "I thought, 'Hey, it takes more than a notion to get that ball to go where you want it.' It was a challenge that.... I don't know how to put it. It was my challenge."

And thus it remains. "For me, to be able to control the ball, to hit 14 fairways and 18 greens, is as rewarding as making a 20-foot putt on the last hole to win a major championship."

"My goodness," exclaims his visitor, "that's heresy!"

"Right. But that's my objective. Scoring is just not as important to me as hitting the ball. How I shoot 68 or 69 is more important to me than the fact of doing it. I recognized that very early, recognized it as something in myself, and in the game. Consistent control was and is the prime thing, and I'm still learning it. That's where the fundamental satisfaction comes from. The money, the recognition, those are what follow. They're not the primary things."

First things first. Peete met golf in 1966. In 1971 he turned pro. He got his PGA card in 1975. He made about $20,000 per annum for three years, barely enough to cover expenses. He's quick to credit his wife, Christine, a high school English and drama teacher (now retired to rear their four children), with making key suggestions and supplying essential confidence and financial backing.

"I met him before he joined the professional tour," Christine has said. "I watched him practice, and watched the other guys, and said to myself, 'You know, he's pretty good at this. And he'll be better—if he works.' "

It seems strange now that she would question whether or not Peete would work. This is a man who has swung a golf club until his hands were bloody. He still practices seven hours a day between tournaments. The real concern was planning the work, fitting together the game. "When I first started thinking about turning pro, I used an 8-mm. camera to film myself and study my moves," says Peete. "I figured I could learn more from watching myself than from watching others. Now, wherever I go I carry videotapes of me hitting the ball really well. If I have problems, I give myself a lesson."

A fundamental lesson was to take everything in stages. "When I first got interested in golf, my goal was to break 80. Then 75. Then scratch. Then to improve my short game. Then to go on tour. Then to qualify on Mondays. Then to make the cuts. Then to make the top 25 in a tournament. Then the top 10. Then, finally, to think of winning. The reason I probably didn't play well at first was that I got ahead of what was possible. I just felt everything would come together and I'd go from 94th to first. I didn't."

Peete says the hardest thing to come to grips with in the early years was the mental discipline—"concentrating on concentrating. I had to dismiss all those ideas I once had about being away from home, about that being the time to go sightseeing on Bourbon Street. I had to be in the room. I had to practice. And I had to come to know myself."

"I play according to my personality," he says. "I'm a low-key person, not naturally excitable, which fits in fine with the requirements of the game. But it took me some time to learn that, to not be like Lee Trevino or Fuzzy Zoeller, all outgoing and chatting with the gallery. I wasn't what you'd call flamboyant, but I was excitable. I'd hit an iron close, and birdie, and I'd get pumped up. I'd want the next hole. Then I'd bogey it. And suddenly I didn't even feel like playing anymore." He chuckles at this, a recollection of impetuous youth, even though it was the behavior of a 35-year-old.

"I learned how to be Calvin Peete on the golf course. Of course I know that's easier said than done, or taught. I spent time alone, reflecting on my nature. I enjoy being alone. I love to drive six or eight hours by myself from one tournament to another. I think I inherited that from my father, liking solitude. Anyway, I finally came to realize that a round of golf isn't over until the 18th green. I learned to save my emotional reaction, good or bad, for after that."

A second fundamental practice that Peete employed to lift his game was visualizing his ultimate success. "Whatever you do," he says, almost grandly, "you've got to dream of success to be successful. If you keep that dream and prepare yourself, you won't be far away from the reality of it."

Peete isn't talking about hazy, azaleahued pipe dreams here. "When I go onto a course I have a definite plan of the shots I want to hit," he says. "I have done a practice round the day before, and the evening before I've thought about it in my room for an hour, an hour and a half. I remember every hole and try to visualize all the possible occurrences and conditions I might face, and what I will do in each circumstance. If I win the U.S. Open someday, it won't be a shock because I've won it in my mind 10,000 times—not the shock to me that it would be to people around the country."

"It wouldn't seem like a huge surprise if you won the Open?" says his guest.

"Well, not like it would've a few years ago, I guess. Anyway, I never really dreamed of making many putts. Maybe that's why I haven't made many. Maybe my next goal ought to be to refine that dream...."

In his defense, Peete is not a bad putter. "He downplays that part of his game because he downplays everything," says Tatum. And there's a statistical quirk that probably explains why Peete will never be among the tour leaders in putts per round. That's because he's too accurate. He's on the green, somewhere, while other players are more often in a bunker or on the fringe. They are chipping to the flag while Peete is putting, so they will have more one-putt greens, even if Peete is beating their socks off in the tournament.

And there's the matter of that left arm, which, as he demonstrates, he can straighten only to an angle of about 150 degrees. "Rather than a handicap, I'd have to say that it's a definite advantage," Peete says. "I can keep it in the same swing path. To me the arm is just a hinge, to guide the club in the swing. And a hinge makes fewer mistakes than a jumpy, eager arm."

This calls to mind the sudden outburst of Dave Eichelberger, a veteran pro who was asked to characterize Peete's game: "Hell, he does the same thing more often than anybody else. He can't hook if he tries."

In 1979, Peete's earnings jumped to $122,481—about where they would stay until last year. "The thing that got me up there was developing my routine," he says. By this he means his pre-shot ritual. Before every stroke, Peete first stands behind the ball, facing the direction of its eventual flight, and pictures its trajectory and landing. Then he banishes further thought and conducts a series of unvarying moves—a half swing before addressing the ball, three little wiggles to plant himself comfortably—before finally swinging.

"I'm not a man who likes routine," says Peete. "I mean I don't like to routinely do things. But I felt it was something I had to develop. The exact sequence of moves probably isn't important. The main thing is to have a process the mind goes through to get things turned over to the muscles. Players will get over a shot—and think. They let the mind run a lot of the swing. And they may get away with it. But when the pressure is on, the mind will come in with all kinds of weird things to tell the body to do, and that's when the bad shots start."

Once Peete had brought his tee-to-green game to near perfection, he found that he was putting better. "Everything is connected," he says. "The simple fact is that when I got confidence in my iron play, I could go for the flag more aggressively. So the putts were a little shorter."

Save for a win in the 1979 Greater Milwaukee Open, victories continued to elude him, but his skills couldn't be hidden from his competitors. "A good, a very good player," said Jack Nicklaus not long ago. "He knows what he can do and he plays within his abilities. That's the real key to this thing. And he's a marvelous wind player."

"There was a day when I was playing with Nicklaus and I hit a shot he liked," says Peete happily. "A two-iron 190 yards into the wind, without taking a divot. He asked me to teach him that. I said, 'You're asking me?' He was good about it. He said you can play this game for 50 years and still be learning."

It was fitting, then, that Peete should absorb something in return from Nicklaus. They were paired on the last round of the 1982 Open at Pebble Beach. Watson would eventually win the tournament with his legendary chip on 17, but it was Nicklaus' charge from three strokes back that forced Watson to such heroics. Peete watched, and was changed.

"I can't pinpoint any specific moments that were decisive for me," he says, "but seeing his concentration, how he tuned everything out, was impressive. He was there to try to win. To that time I was still a golfer who just wanted to do well. But Jack tried to win. The whole round it was there, that concentrated, constant will to win. I felt that by comparison, mentally I'd been holding myself back. It made me realize that I was a good player, finally."

It seems remarkable that, after all Peete had done, at this last little step he was still doubtful.

"I think it's wrong to call it a last little step," he says. "There are a lot of good players. Few of them take that step."

Three weeks after the Open, Peete won at Milwaukee again. Two weeks after that, he won the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic in Williamsburg, Va. In September he won the B.C. Open by seven strokes with rounds of 69, 63, 64 and 69. In October he won the Pensacola Open, again by seven strokes. Only Craig Stadler, the tour's leading money-winner, equaled Peete's four victories.

None of this altered the essential Calvin Peete, of course. "Golf is something you play every week," he says. "You can take the pressure off just by telling yourself, well, there's always next week. You can't do that in the World Series or the Olympics. And I wasn't overwhelmed at winning, as I said, because I had dreamed about it for so long. I would be excited, sure, if I were to win a special one, an Open or a PGA. I'd love to win the Masters or the British, but if I had my choice, it would be the U.S. Open. It's our national championship. To win would be to be considered the best golfer in the country." His tone makes it clear that he could aspire to nothing higher.

Peete quit school in the eighth grade to work in the fields with his father. Last year, ardently wanting to represent the U.S. on the 1983 Ryder Cup team against Europe, he ran up against the requirement that he must be a PGA of America member to be selected. And the PGA had a rule, aromatic of golf's musty social codes, that only high school graduates need apply.

"I told him that rule about the diploma couldn't be enforced in any court," says Peete's attorney and business adviser, H. Stephen Frank. "He said, 'No, I'm not going to break any rules. The people who went before me lived up to that rule. I will, too.' "

So Peete, with Christine's tutoring, studied his math, history, geography and English and took the four-hour high school equivalency test one afternoon in Detroit, alone in the classroom except for the accommodating high school principal who was his proctor. He passed, but all the Ryder Cup points he'd been amassing didn't count. Only those he earned after his diploma are valid. "He'll make the team anyway," says Frank.

"He'd better," says Christine, who's not quite the accommodating soul that Calvin is. "If he doesn't, he won't file a challenge, but I sure will."

Peete is not known as a denizen of the 19th hole. "I don't drink, I don't know a lot of funny war stories," he says. "Even my rounds are boring—down the middle, on the green, two-putt—so there isn't a lot of reason to be wildly sociable." When he's done with a round or practice, he doesn't hang around. He has few close friends on the tour. "I'm not a reader," he says. "I'm a TV watcher. I'm a thinker."

"He's not shunning the country-club set especially," says Frank. "That is, he shuns a lot of things. He's not very frivolous. He'll sit up until 3 a.m. discussing serious things—politics, law. [Peete's childhood ambition, abandoned when he had to quit school, was to become a lawyer. "It was from the radio shows—The Shadow, Johnny Dollar," he says. "I always loved the courtroom scenes."] He's patient and very intelligent, and if you have any preconceptions about former lettuce-pickers, he will fool you."

That's so. And once in a while he will amaze you for completely different reasons. As when, halfway through the second round of the Inverrary Tournament in early March, he had words with a spectator, some of them profane, and abruptly withdrew from the tournament. "It was a personal thing," he said, declining to elaborate.

Told that it was worrisome for a friend to contemplate the prospect of some sort of skeleton in Peete's past, Frank said. "There are none. [The man Peete spoke with turned out to be a process server in a 10-year-old civil case in Tampa.] I've never met anyone who holds himself to a higher standard of morality and dedication than Calvin. That preceded his taking up golf. It was responsible for his success, and it's why he'll stay at the top."

Two days after the incident, Peete has returned to his customary equanimity. At lunch with Christine, he discusses the social changes he has seen in golf, the growing number of white faces among the caddies and maintenance men. He says he's immensely gratified to hear of galleries calling him "good for golf."

"Every athlete feels pride in and protective of his sport," Peete says. "Other than beating a ball around, you want to share, to teach." And so Peete, who again leads the tour in driving accuracy, but has made another slow start in the money race (he's 22nd now), often schedules clinics in inner-city neighborhoods, to expose kids to more than how high a golf ball will bounce in an alley.

He describes his carefully developed set of stretching exercises: "The thigh, back and buttock muscles do most of the work in the swing—that big turn. You have got to keep the lower back loose. So I lie on the floor on my back with my feet on the floor and do a lot of twisting. That's essential for a golfer who intends to play this game until he's 70 years old."

So there is time, he is asked, to perfect his putting?

"Oh, yes. You know, you have to take these things in stages."

ILLUSTRATIONBURT SILVERMANPeete, a most methodical man, maintains a deliberately glacial calm during a round.ILLUSTRATIONBURT SILVERMANChristine provided Calvin with confidence for golf and tutoring for his diploma.ILLUSTRATIONBURT SILVERMANWhen he needs a "lesson" during a tournament, Peete views videotapes of himself.ILLUSTRATIONBURT SILVERMANPeete's putting surpasses its reputation.ILLUSTRATIONBURT SILVERMANThe bounce fascinated the young Peete.ILLUSTRATIONBURT SILVERMANEighth-grade dropout Peete became a high school grad at 39.