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Calvin Peete: The gentleman hero

Calvin Peete passed away earlier this week.

For those not familiar, Peete was the Tiger Woods of his day, and one of the reasons I love golf; that ‘good walk, spoiled’, as humorist Mark Twain once called it.

He was the most successful African-American golfer before Woods came along and he did it even though he never took the country club route of so many of the pros of his day.

No, Peete was a farm laborer’s son who never touched a golf club until he was in his 20’s, and even then it was because a group of his friends actually tricked him into going to a driving range.

“If I happened to turn the channel and saw golf on television, I’d be like most people I knew,” he said in a 1983 interview with the New York Times. “I’d turn to a basketball game or a cowboy movie.”

Until Peete came along, I was pretty much the same way.

“Some feeling went through my hands and my body at that time,” Peete would later say in an interview. “I just thought to myself, ‘I think I can learn to play this game.’ ”

Selling clothes and jewelry to farm workers out of an old beat-up station wagon by night, Peete began spending days on the golf course, teaching himself the game by reading books. He learned about grip-pressure from the man who sold him his golf gloves, used a baseball field for a driving range, made films of his stroke and studied, studied, studied.

It took Peete almost ten years and three trips to the PGA qualifying tournament (Q-School) before he finally earned the right to join the tour in 1975.  He was 32 years old.

By that same age, Jack Nicklaus had already earned over $1,000,000; a prince-ly sum in that day.

At the time, blacks were rare in professional golf, and only a handful of black golfers preceded Peete on the pro tour.

In 1975, Lee Elder became the first black golfer to play in the Masters and Peete became the second just five years later.

From 1976 to 1995, Peete played in 344 tournaments, winning 12, finishing in the top 10 on 73 occasions and earned $2.3 million.

Peete was the fourth-leading money winner on the PGA Tour twice: 1982 and ’83.  After falling to 25th in 1984, he bounced back to finish third on the money-list in ’85. Jim Thorpe, another black golfer who came on Tour the same year as Peete, finished fourth.

Peete will be remembered for that crooked left elbow, the result of his falling out of a tree as a child and the injury never healing properly.  Still, many a pro at the time said there was no one on Tour who hit it straighter.

Peete had to get his GED in 1982 because a high school diploma or its equivalent was required for membership on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which represents the USA in a bi-annual competition against a team of Europeans.  Peete played on two Ryder Cup teams and was on the 1983 squad with Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and other stars that helped the U.S. to a narrow victory.

No less a golfing legend than Nicklaus himself had a great tribute to Peete: the Golden Bear said that off the course Peete was a very warm and caring person who gave of himself to golf and to others.

“Calvin Peete was a remarkable golfer; he overcame a lot of adversity, including a physical limitation, to become a very, very good golfer, a very smart golfer; and, you might say, he was an overachiever.” Nicklaus wrote on his website Wednesday. “I was amazed at what he could get out of his game.”

Here’s to the “gentleman’s game” that on Wednesday lost one of its truly great gentlemen.

 Gene Motley is a Staff Writer with Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.