Henning: Detroit's Peete forged unusual path to success

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

His life was not nearly as concise as those fairway-hugging drives he hit during a long PGA Tour career, which saw him win 12 times, including the 1985 Players Championship.

But what a story Calvin Peete, a Detroit native, crafted ahead of his death Wednesday in Atlanta. He was 71.

Peete won more Tour events than any African-American golfer before Tiger Woods' arrival in 1996.

"Just a great guy — everybody loved Calvin," said Randy Erskine, a former Tour player, lifelong Michigan resident and past multiple Michigan Open champion who, ahead of retirement, most recently was head professional at Great Oaks Country Club in Rochester.

'What a worker'

"He was endeared to all the people, everywhere. I had so many dinners with him, and I never heard anyone say anything negative about Calvin. And what a worker. Always chipping, always putting, always on the range. You had to work hard to get as good as he got.

"It didn't come naturally, by any means. He knew his one way to get ahead in life was to make it on Tour, and he took advantage."

Peete's early years were spent in Detroit as one of nine children born in an auto worker's family. His life, though, was anything but conventional.

At age 11, his parents separated, and Calvin, along with two sisters, was dropped at the home of his maternal grandmother in Missouri. The mother left for work in Chicago and never returned.

Calvin at age 12 fell from a cherry tree and broke his left elbow. He learned later it had been fused and would remain permanently altered. Ironically, the misshapen arm became his secret to a golf swing that produced one of the most accurate drivers in PGA Tour history.

But that golf swing didn't evolve until later. Much later.

Peete didn't play golf until he was well into his 20s. He had worked the sugar plantations of Florida, where his father had moved with him and some siblings. Calvin later peddled jewelry to migrant workers as part of a carved-out living that changed when he was coaxed into playing golf one summer in Rochester, New York.

Hitting a ball for 12 hours in summer heat, he believed, was an easy tradeoff when he had been accustomed to longer hours of hot drudgery in sugar fields.

Peete joined the Tour full time in 1976, at age 32, and three years later won his first tournament, the Greater Milwaukee Open.

"He was just absolutely the most remarkable driver of the ball you've ever seen," said Erskine, who had first gotten acquainted with Peete when they played together on the mini-tours, ahead of getting their PGA Tour cards.

"The only guy I ever saw who drove the ball close to Calvin was (Lee) Trevino. We'd be at a tournament and I'd say to him: 'Did you miss any fairways this week?'

"And he'd say, 'Oh, maybe two or three.' That's 14 holes times four (excluding par-3 holes). It was just incredible, his accuracy. And when he got confidence, it bled through his entire golf game: bunkers, chipping, putting.

"Especially when he was one who didn't have the length the other guys had, he kept it in play and managed his own game. He knew that if you made one or two mistakes and the other guys make seven or eight, you could win."

Biggest victory

Peete's signature victory was at the 1985 Players Championship, which will be played again next week at TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Florida. He shot a final-round 66 to win by three strokes over D.A. Weibring, who had worked as a Metro Detroit assistant golf professional ahead of fulltime duty on the Tour.

Peete had steady success during the 1980s, finishing fourth on the Tour money list in 1982, when he won four times to match Tom Watson and Craig Stadler for most victories. Not coincidentally, he also finished tops on the Tour in driving distance and greens-hit-in-regulation.

He had another big year in 1983, playing on the first of two U.S. Ryder Cup teams (he had a 2-1-1 record). In 1984, he edged Jack Nicklaus to win the Vardon Trophy for lowest per-round stroke average.

It seemed as if Peete would be a natural to cash in on the then-flourishing Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour). But in 1999 he was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, a discomfiting neurological disorder that drew him into a quieter, non-competitive life.

He married for the second time and raised two more young children. He is survived by his wife, Pepper, and seven children from his two marriages.