Calvin Peete: The sad demise of a superstar

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This Week in Black History, Calvin Peete

Warren Barge remembers the call.

He and golf legend Calvin Peete had been friends for 40 years, often flying around the country to play in golf tournaments or flying around town in one of Barge’s Rolls Royces.

Peete was estranged from his wife and living with a son in Pompano Beach, Fla.

It was a long way from the PGA Tour, which he blazed through in the 1980s as the most successful black golfer on the tour before Tiger Woods. Cancer had ravaged his once athletic body.

He needed Barge.

“He wasn’t doing well and he wanted to get out of Florida,” said Barge, who picked Peete up last November.

African-American golf legends Lee Elder, left, and Calvin Peete share a laugh as they talk with children at the East Lake Family YMCA in Atlanta during The Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in November 2005. (PHOTO BY CURTIS COMPTON/staff)
Caption
African-American golf legends Lee Elder, left, and Calvin Peete share a laugh as they talk with children at the East Lake Family YMCA in Atlanta during The Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in November 2005. (PHOTO BY CURTIS COMPTON/staff)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

He set him up in the home of a friend, Pamela Harris, who was more direct in her assessment: “Warren found him in a house with no furniture, sleeping on a mattress on the floor and eating peanut butter out of a jar.”

Peete, 71, died Wednesday morning in an Atlanta hospice. An official cause of death was not released, but several people close to him said he had at least two forms of cancer — pancreatic and lung.

“I went to see him for the last time last Saturday,” said friend and fellow golfer Carl Seldon. “He was on his last leg. I just wanted to holler at him and see if he remembered me. When I left he nodded his head and gave me a fist bump. That was it.”

The story of how Peete went from being a highly successful PGA Tour pro to dying virtually alone in Atlanta might never be fully told.

Calls to his children were not returned this week. His wife of 23 years, Pepper Peete, talked briefly to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter before hanging up.

He was the most unlikely of golfers

Peete’s path from the streets of Detroit to the bean fields of Pahokee, Fla., to the lush greens of the PGA Tour was uniquely his.

Who ever heard of such a tale in a country club locker room?

That of an eighth-grade dropout, working the fields to support himself and his family, hustling later to sell clothes and jewelry to migrant workers out of his car trunk, who didn’t touch a golf club until he was 23?

Who needed golf? Peete used to wonder. After all those years working in the hot sun, not him, he thought.

That all made him the most unlikely of golfers. Between 1979 and 1986, he had 12 PGA Tour victories, making him one of the most recognizable, albeit unmarketable, players on the tour. He earned $2.3 million on the PGA Tour and another $950,000 on the over-50 Champions Tour, yet could never secure a major sponsor.

“He won 12 damn times,” Barge said. “You win 12 times now, you making $50 million.”

While he never won one of golf’s four major championships — the Masters, the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the British Open — he did win the 1985 Players Championship, was a member of two Ryder Cup teams, and in 1984 beat Jack Nicklaus to capture the Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average.

For 10 years he led the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, the whole time with a crooked arm. At the age of 12, Peete fell out of a cherry tree and broke his left elbow. It was never properly set and he would never be able to fully straighten it. But that didn't stop him.

“He was a driving machine,” said his friend and fellow touring pro, Jim Dent.

Biographer Pete McDaniel said Peete was an inspiration to black golfers, but added that his story had more layers.

“He was a very complex individual,” said McDaniel, whose earlier book, “Uneven Lies,” chronicles the history of black golfers. “He was a calm and great gentleman. Then there were other days, he could get a little impatient. That might have been the Tourette’s or the diseases. I don’t know. But he also had a lot of demons.”

Golf the furthest thing from his mind

Peete was not the first significant black golfer, but was the best and served as a bridge between Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Dent to Woods. Another contemporary, Pete Brown, the first black golfer to actually win a PGA event, died Friday in Augusta.

Peete was born on July 18, 1943, in Detroit, one of nine children. When he was nine, his parents split up and sent Peete to live with his grandmother in Hayti, Mo.

“The house had a leaky roof and he could sleep on a cot and see the stars outside,” McDaniel said. “There was no indoor plumbing … and they did all kinds of manual labor. He was a city boy, so the first chance he got, he got out.”

He moved to Pahokee, Fla., with his father, who was a vegetable picker. Peete dropped out of school and picked beans and corn to help feed his family. He sold clothes, vegetables and jewelry out of an old station wagon.

Golf was the furthest thing from his mind.

In 1966, a group of friends took Peete to a public course in New York.

Either play with us or wait for us, they told him. “I couldn’t get a ride home,” he said during one Boys Life interview, “so I went along with the fool idea.”

He was 23.

In 1975, the same year Elder became the first African-American to play in the Masters, the 32-year old Peete, having never taken a golfing lesson and without a major sponsor, turned pro.

“Calvin Peete was a remarkable golfer,” Nicklaus wrote on his website. “He overcame a lot of adversity, including a physical limitation, to become a very, very good golfer.”

Superstitions, anxiety and terrible illnesses

He met his first wife, Christine Sears, in 1973. They had five children between them. But as his career took off, his marriage crumbled, according to a Golf Digest profile by biographer McDaniel in 2005.

Finances may have played a role, but Christine Peete told McDaniel that in retrospect, she might have ignored erratic behavior. He was a hard-working perfectionist, but very superstitious.

“He had to do things a certain way all the time and was always trying to figure out why things hadn’t worked the way he thought they should,” Christine Peete said. “Always looking for a reason.”

The Masters and Augusta National revealed other sides of Peete. He became the second African-American to play the Masters when he made his first of eight appearances in 1980. Peete’s strength — accuracy over distance — did not suit the high ball/long ball-hitters’ paradise that is Augusta National. His best finish was a tie for 11th in 1986.

It was after a rain-soaked round of 87 that a frustrated Peete answered a reporter’s ill-timed question about Masters tradition angrily: “Until Lee Elder, the only blacks at the Masters were caddies or waiters. To ask a black man what he feels about the traditions of the Masters is like asking him how he feels about his forefathers who were slaves.”

McDaniel said Peete went through a political phase, but in retrospect, Peete might have also been displaying symptoms of Tourette’s. Doctors said Peete had been jerking his neck since he was a kid and when stressed would make noises with his tongue on the roof of his mouth. He wasn’t diagnosed with Tourette’s until 1999 – after his career was virtually over.

The couple split for good in 1987 and Peete moved to Phoenix. He admitted at the time that after the divorce from his first wife, he started “drinking a little more… because the anxiety would build up so much.”

As his game crumbled, so came the rumors that Peete was using drugs. He always denied it and blamed it on his not meeting expectations that fans had of him.

“That was just a stigma attached to black athletes. Fans are very hard on you when you’re not winning,” Peete said in 2005. “You can’t play golf on drugs. You can’t drive the ball as straight as I did for 10 straight years on drugs. It’s impossible.”

He met his second wife, Pepper, in 1987 at a scholarship banquet in Phoenix.

“Have you ever met someone and you looked into that person eyes and it clicked?” Pepper Peete said Thursday. “That is what happened with me and Calvin.”

The two married in 1992 and had two daughters. Both are college golfers.

Pepper Peete would not comment on the status of their relationship when he died.

“We were still married. He was my husband for 23 years,” Pepper Peete said before hanging up. “I am and hurt and sad. Whenever a loved one dies, it hurts. Unfortunately for you, the people doing the talking don’t know the circumstances of me and my husband.”

Meeting an opponent he could not beat

After retiring from the tour in 1993 at the relatively young age of 50, Peete joined the Champions Tour, quitting for good in 2001 after eight winless seasons.

It is unclear when Peete was diagnosed with cancer or exactly when he moved out of his family home into that of his son’s. Pepper Peete said the illness “came on very suddenly. It was pretty quick.”

After Peete moved to Atlanta and settled into Harris’ house, he became a member of the McDonald’s Breakfast Club, a group of retirees who gather every morning at the Cascade Road McDonald’s.

Harris said Peete was admitted to the hospital on March 16, followed by a stint in a rehabilitation center, before going into hospice.

“His mind was sharp and his position was he could beat this,” Harris said. “He tried very hard. His mind wanted to do it, but his body couldn’t.”

Left behind was a legacy built doggedly, one down-the-middle tee shot after another.

“He was the king of black golf,” McDaniel said. “He was beyond a shadow of a doubt the first black player who proved that we could dominate the game of golf…But in the end, he was just a regular guy who loved life and his family.”

Staff writer Steve Hummer contributed to this article.