For once Calvin Peete forgot his allergies, his bad contact lenses, his kinked back and the exhaustion that, on one famous occasion, felled him in a sand trap. This time he played it straight and kept to golf. At the La Costa Country Club near San Diego, a citadel of milk, honey and reconstructive surgery, Peete won the MONY Tournament of Champions, putting together a string of subpar figures to kick off the PGA Tour season with a record-shattering flourish.
In 1985, Peete made headlines of another kind in spa-land, putting like Wayne Gretzky on the 5th hole and taking so many strokes that he lost count. "What's trump?" asked Peete, before he conveniently disqualified himself. Last week, with a little help from perfect weather, Peete had rounds of 68-67-64-68 for a 21-under-par 267; it left the rest of the field looking at him through binoculars. "You can't catch what you can't see," said Mark O'Meara, who finished second, six strokes back.
When Peete is healthy and has his mind on golf, he can decorate a scorecard like few others, even though he supposedly cannot putt or hit the big drive and can't straighten his left arm, which was broken in a childhood accident. Going back to January 1982, Peete has won 10 tournaments; he usually leads the tour in driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation. In the same span, Tom Watson has taken nine titles, Lanny Wadkins eight, Curtis Strange, Craig Stadler and Tom Kite five apiece. Asked to pinpoint why the 42-year-old Peete keeps getting better when his contemporaries are fading, his caddie, Dolphus Hull, better known as "Golf Ball," explained succinctly, "He goes flag on you." Translation: He's hungry to win. "I have to be," says Peete. "I've got a wife, a daughter and three boys over 6 feet tall with big appetites. I haven't made $4 million like Jack Nicklaus has."
If he keeps playing this way, he might yet do it. Peete's 267 at La Costa was six strokes better than the previous best score there. Peete won $90,000, which brings his career earnings to $1,724,318, all but a pocketful of it since '79.
Peete gave an indication of what was to come when he shot a 64 in the pro-am. That night he had dinner with his longtime friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in San Diego to speak to high school students about drug abuse. Might Peete be part of Jackson's political movement in '88? "No way," said Peete. "He won't caddie for me and I won't be his campaign manager."
Peete admitted that he wanted to redeem himself after not finishing the tournament last year. "That was conduct unbecoming a professional," he said, sounding like a military man explaining an AWOL. Over several years Peete had dropped out of a number of tournaments after shooting a high score in a round. Last spring, the PGA Tour court-martialed him, adding a regulation that denies eligibility for tour-statistic championships to players who withdraw during competition. The Cal Peete rule, the players call it.
Peete stationed himself atop the leader board along with Mark McCumber with a first-round 68 and stayed there, mostly because his precise game avoids trouble. He made only three bogeys during the first two rounds—two of those on the par-4, 449-yard 5th hole, where he was short of the green one day and in a green-side bunker the next—and none over the last 36 holes.
While Peete was building his lead, people were talking about the pros who weren't playing at La Costa—the superstar in exile, Seve Ballesteros, who has been barred from the tour this season because he played too few events in '85, and Watson and Nicklaus, who didn't win last year and thus weren't eligible. And tongues were wagging over the amateur in the field, Scott Verplank, who qualified by winning the Western Open.
For a time, it seemed as if Verplank, the only amateur to win a PGA event since Gene Littler prevailed at San Diego in 1954, might challenge Peete. Verplank is 21, exactly half Peete's age. He started slowly, shooting a 72, but he followed with 67-68 and closed with a 72 for a tie for fourth place, worth a handshake in his simon-pure world. The Oklahoma State senior now has passed up more than $110,000 in prize money because of his amateur standing.
Verplank plans to turn pro after he graduates in May. "Scott reminds me of a young Johnny Miller, Lanny Wadkins or Jack Nicklaus," said Peete. "They were [as good as] pros as kids, they just didn't have the name. I think Verplank is the best player on the tour right now."
Verplank certainly has a different way of talking about golf. "I just try to max out what I'm doing," he says. In the third round Friday, he was paired with 28-year-old Bernhard Langer, the Masters champion who is so good that his caddie, Pete Coleman, drives a Porsche. Langer also is one of the tour's legitimate rocket launchers, 14th in driving distance last year, but Verplank probably made him feel like a weakling as he hit every one of his drives dead-solid, max-out, outhitting Langer and outscoring him by three shots.
Friday was the day Verplank almost made his move. He snaps his fingers when he drains a long putt, and things were clicking until he reached the 9th hole and hit a duffer's duck hook into the water. That cost him two strokes. Then on the back nine he missed birdie putts of four, eight and seven feet. "You can't do those things and win," said Verplank. He added, "Maybe I missed because it's January."
Friday was also the day that Peete broke out of a three-way tie for the lead with O'Meara and Kite. He tied the course record with a 64, getting eight birdies—five of them in a six hole stretch. Peete one-putted 11 times, which quieted talk about his weakness on the greens. His playing companion, Jim Thorpe, the walking muscle, also scoffed at Peete's rep as a powder-puff hitter. "All I know is, when he has to hit it by me, he does."
And when he has something to prove, he does that, too.