During his heyday, Calvin Peete was known as the most accurate driver on the PGA Tour. What he lacked in distance, he made up for in precision, leading the tour in fairways hit for 10 straight years (1981-90).
There was even a joke among his fellow competitors that the only time Peete left the fairway during a tournament was to use the bathroom.
Peete graced the fairways of the PGA Tour at a time when black players were just beginning to get a firm foothold in the pro ranks. He turned professional in 1975, the same year that Lee Elder became the first African-American to play in the Masters and a little more than a decade after Charlie Sifford became the first black player to earn his PGA Tour card.
“When I came on tour in 1975, there were 10 or 12 blacks (who had been) on the tour already,” said Peete from his home in Jacksonville, Fla. “I wasn’t just the token black out there. I was just one of the brothers.
“I would have to say Charlie paved the way for all of us. He was the one who took the racial slurs and all the racism when he came on tour in 1961.”
Peete’s career on the PGA Tour overlapped with Elder’s as well as Jim Thorpe and others. But Peete easily became the most successful black player the PGA Tour had ever seen. His 12 tour wins, including the 1985 Players Championship,- were more than Elder, Sifford, Pete Brown (the first African-American to win on tour) and Thorpe combined.
He played on two Ryder Cup teams – scoring 2.5 points for the victorious Americans in 1983 – and was ranked in the world’s top 10 when the Official World Golf Rankings debuted in 1986. He played in eight straight Masters from 1980-1987, never missing the cut and posting four top-25 finishes.
“I definitely felt uneasy about the racism as far as the Masters was concerned, personally speaking,” said Peete, who made his debut at Augusta National just five years after Elder’s ground-breaking appearance. “Every time it looked like Charlie Sifford was going to qualify for the Masters, they changed the rules.
“I personally was uneasy for the atmosphere of the golf tournament, but I was happy to go for my fans. We had a good time, and I gained a lot of fans at Augusta as well.”
Peete’s generation started the ball rolling for African-American golfers. Those men helped to shed the stigma that golf was a white man’s game. And when Tiger Woods burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, it was touted as the moment that would open the floodgates for more black players to join the pro ranks.
Embraced by fans across color lines, Woods was supposed to, literally, change the face of golf.
But 17 years into Woods’ career, he’s still the only African-American player on the PGA Tour. Joseph Bramlett briefly gave Woods some company on the tour two years ago.
The Tiger Woods revolution seems to be stalled in its tracks.
Peete sees several factors at work, the most significant of which is black kids’ lack of exposure to the game. Decades ago, many young African-Americans first were introduced to golf through serving as caddies.
“The thing of it is, most of the players, with the exception of myself, came up through the caddie ranks,” said Peete, who didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 23. “That was their first exposure to the game: caddie on the weekend and for the summer when they were out of school.
“The black caddie became an endangered species, therefore it also sifted into the players because there was no exposure. The lack of exposure is really what the problem is.”
There have been efforts made recently to get more minorities and underprivileged kids involved in golf. One of those is The First Tee, which provides access to golf and golf programs for kids whose families might not otherwise be able to afford them. Peete’s wife Pepper, in fact, is involved with the First Tee of North Florida.
While Peete acknowledges the good works of The First Tee, he said there’s only so much it can do. The primary responsibility for getting young African-Americans involved in golf, he said, falls on their parents.
“They ask me, ‘Why don’t we have more blacks in golf on the tour?’” said Peete. “I say, ‘Well why don’t you introduce your kids to the game?’ I can’t go into your house and pull your kid out.
“You’ve got to expose your kid … whether they want to play or not … but they see your buddies, they’re CEOs, they’re lawyers or doctors. Those are the people you want to expose you kids to. It just so happens that a few of them might take a liking to the game.”
Certainly Peete hasn’t given up hope. He believes there’s still a chance that one day there can be multiple African-Americans on the PGA Tour like there were in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
But he also believes that day is still a long way off. Along with a lack of exposure to the game, there’s an accompanying lack of funds that Peete said are necessary to help black players along toward pro golf careers.
By his own estimation, Peete was shelling out $30,000 to $40,000 a year for travel and other expenses that come with life as a touring pro. And that was 30 years ago.
The solution? Peete believes that those within the black corporate community need to do their part.
“I’ve been to a lot of corporate executive outings, black and white, and I see the kind of money that these executives spend on these parties – in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But now we can’t get 10 black men – executive positions, they’re millionaires over and over – to spend $10,000 a year to send one kid with potential to put him on tour?
“We’ve got to get him to that stage. We have to make sure he’s getting the proper teaching and the proper lessons from the proper people. We have to groom the kid and put him on the mini tours or the (Web).com Tour so he can work his way up to the (PGA) Tour.
“And that takes time. This is not an overnight thing. But we have to use our resources to do this. We can’t wait on the system to do this. We’ve got to do more.”
Peete’s competitive days are well behind him. He retired in 2001, and subsequent rotator cuff surgery inhibited his swing. Now 70 years old, he’s able to periodically hit balls on the range again – accurate as ever.
And he looks forward to the day when he sees more black players knocking it down the middle of PGA Tour fairways.
– Chuck Curti