Calvin Peete, 1943-2015

Photographing golf tournaments, as I did in the 1980s, you were never sorry when someone strayed from the fairway on their tee shot. An off-line drive could mean extra visual interest in the pictures of their approach: a big chunk of flying rough; a sheet of bunker sand between the telephoto lens and a mundane “steel and neck” follow-through; after a really wild one, a golfer and/or his ball framed by tree trunks and limbs.

I never photographed Calvin Peete in trouble very often. Nor did anyone else.

No one has ever driven the ball straighter, as his leading the PGA Tour’s Driving Accuracy category for 10 straight years—1981 through 1990—attests. It’s hard to believe that anyone who played before they began keeping track of such stats (and that includes Harry Vardon and Ben Hogan) found more fairways either. In his decade as the tour’s most accurate driver, Peete hit fewer than 80 percent of the fairways only season, 1984, when his number was 77.53 percent. From 1981 through 1983 he also led the tour in Greens in Regulation. A perpetually bent left arm—the result of an early fracture that didn’t heal properly—was no handicap as Peete delivered the club in the slot time after time.

Peete, who died Wednesday at age 71, took a road to his successful pro career—12 victories, including the 1985 Players Championship, and two Ryder Cup appearances—as winding as his shots were straight. He labored in Florida farm fields, peddled clothing and jewelry to migrant workers out of his car up and down the East coast and owned apartment buildings before he picked up a golf club for the first time when he was 23. Only Peete’s contemporary Larry Nelson, a three-time major champion who turned to golf after getting back from Vietnam when he was in his early 20s, approached getting such a late start then becoming a world-class golfer.

With many of golf’s discriminatory doors open by the time Peete joined the PGA Tour in the mid-1970s, his talent and relentless hours of practice led to the most successful career of a black golfer prior to the arrival of the multi-ethnic Tiger Woods in the 1990s.

Peete went about his golf calmly, showing little emotion, his flat cap reminiscent of another stoic who never had trouble finding his ball, Hogan. The equation for the kind of success in sports that Peete enjoyed can be long. His tenets, as he recalled to a couple of reporters over the years, included the advice from his grandmother from those long, searing days picking vegetables that made a Sunday afternoon playing a game, regardless of the competitive heat, seem like a picnic.

“You can give out,” she told him, “but don’t give up.”

There should be a good, long pause at The Players next week for a man who listened well.

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