I have a newsletter on Substack called The Albatross. You can subscribe through the link below. Thanks!
Author: Bill Fields
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.
Wondering About Woods
I wrote an essay on Tiger Woods as the end piece for an anthology of my golf stories that was published last year. Due to the production schedule, it had to be turned in around the middle of August in 2013, not long after Woods had won his fifth PGA Tour event of that season and 79th of his career. While Woods hadn’t won a major championship in five years, he was otherwise playing some impressive golf and was more than recognizable as the player who had dominated his sport.
The major drought, I still believed, was going to be broken. Where the 2014 majors were being played suited him beautifully: Augusta National, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla, where he had won, and Pinehurst No. 2, where he had come very close. His back had not yet seized up at the Barclays playoff event, presaging what would happen in 2014 —surgery and an aborted comeback.
I closed the piece with a question: What if Woods, building on his fine 2013 season, started winning majors again and won four more of them to tie Jack Nicklaus at 18? How long would he continue the quest for No. 19? That scenario, I argued, would be the most fascinating of all the plots that Woods has been responsible for in his decades as a must-watch golfer.
Nearly 18 months after writing what I did, that fantasy, as riveting as it might have been, seems whacky. Woods used to be photographed riding in a cart with a major trophy in his lap. Last Thursday at Torrey Pines, he was again seen in a cart carrying nothing more than doubts.
He was forced to withdraw during the first round of the Famers Insurance Open because of a back problem that resurfaced just as he was trying to solve ugly chipping and pitching issues as intriguing, in a ghoulish kind of way, as his former brilliance had been. If Woods was a lost man as his personal life fell apart amid scandal in 2009, he is a lost golfer now closing in on 40 years of age with physical, technical and confidence issues.
If there is a map out of this wilderness, it will be the greatest escape of Woods’ golf life. Instead of wondering how long Tiger would try to surpass Nicklaus if he ever pulled even with him — an outlandish hypothetical given the current facts — it is apropos to wonder how long Tiger will even play on in search of a few steady rounds, to get in the hunt on the Sunday, to win PGA Tour event No. 80. Watching Woods pack another car for another premature exit after not being able to finish another round in which a fellow competitor was picking up his tee to save him the pain, Mars feels closer than another major victory.
Before departing Torrey Pines, Woods spoke technically about his body, of muscles that had deactivated and led to his back seizing up. I thought of what I had heard him say on a Friday afternoon in Kentucky last August after he struggled all over Valhalla, his surgically repaired back stiff and swing sour, to miss only his fourth cut in 66 majors as a professional. “I felt old a long time ago,” Woods said. He didn’t appear to be joking.
What happened at Torrey Pines certainly wasn’t a laughing matter, regardless of all the riffs on social media in response to Woods’ parking-lot explanation of what had caused his body to betray him Thursday afternoon after fog delays. I take no glee in seeing the greatest golfer of his time struggle like that, and it is the way Woods’ problems have piled one on top of the other that causes so much pause. If by dint of effort and luck the issues can be sorted out to the point where Woods isn’t an imposter of his winning self, the clock will still be ticking. As Lee Trevino said, no golfer has it all. Despite all he has earned and all he was given, for Woods competitive longevity could be drawing to an inside straight.
Back in the late 1990s one of Sam Snead’s associates, unsolicited, sent me an 8 by 10 photograph of the record 82-time winner with Woods. Sam, whom I had recently profiled, signed it. From the background, I believe it was taken on the practice range during the 1997 Players Championship. Woods looks happy, almost seeming to be aware that something very good was just around the corner. In a couple of weeks he would win the Masters in historic fashion, and the Tiger legend accelerated like a dragster.
As Woods piled up the victories, surpassing Nicklaus to trail only Snead, the picture seemed to be a cool bit of golf history to have, the two men with the most wins on the PGA Tour. Until last Thursday, I thought the younger man on the right was on an inexorable journey to become the new and likely forever No. 1. Now, because of the disorder in Tiger’s game, I’m not so sure.
At the moment Woods is the anti-Snead, not easing into middle age with an oily swing that defied time but going there searching for so much — too much, perhaps, than can ever be found. How he feels might be who he is, and records aren’t found in old.
Riding the Rails
I write about train memories old and new in my column in the February edition of PineStraw magazine, published in Southern Pines, N.C.
Here’s the link:
I also took some photographs coming and going. Here is a sampler of my window-seat view up and down the Eastern Seaboard, N.Y. to N.C. and back, last month.
Charlie Sifford, 1922-2015
The snowy view from my window the day after Charlie Sifford died at age 92 isn’t much more white than the competitive-golf landscape that largely kept him and other blacks away until 1961, when the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause was finally removed.
There may be no more fitting title to a memoir than Sifford’s 1992 Just Let Me Play, because for so long that simple desire was stopped by the barbed wire of prejudice.
Brave African-American golfers before Sifford such as Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes had lobbied for the same opportunity, but their window had closed by the time California attorney general Stanley Mosk applied the pressure that led to institutional change. As it was Sifford was bearing down on 40 when he became the first black allowed to join the tour, when he effectively became golf’s Jackie Robinson and blazed a trail for others to follow.
Access didn’t always equal acceptance. A native North Carolinian like Sifford, I was old enough to have gone to segregated schools for a while but not old enough to have witnessed the full fury of racial hatred, and it was painful to learn what Sifford went through when he played his first tour event in the South, the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open.
Sifford was treated well by those who invited him to play in the GGO, but after he shot a first-round 68 there was a telephoned death threat and persistent taunts and slurs from a group of fans the next day until police intervened on the back nine. It might have been one of the most formidable even-par 72s anyone has ever shot, and Sifford, despite the heavy undercurrent of tension, finished fourth in the event.
As Sifford later wrote: “… I felt a larger victory. I had come through my first southern tournament with the worst kind of social pressures and discrimination around me, and I hadn’t cracked. I hadn’t quit.”
He would win two PGA Tour events, the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969 — both of them coming after Pete Brown became the first black to win a PGA-sanctioned event, in 1964. (Sifford’s 1957 Long Beach Open win wasn’t recognized as official because it was 54 holes.) A cadre of good friends among white tour pros including Bob Goalby, Larry Mowry and Don January provided a balm against all the slights and stares Sifford would get for years as a rare golfer of color on the biggest stages.
In 2004 Sifford was the first African-American to be selected for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Last November President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Lots of golfers get rich and find a measure of fame. Not as many become part of history. Fewer still make a difference. Sifford, enduring what would have broken many, did. Now that most of the fences are down and many of the attitudes have changed, golfers of any color who chase their dreams as hard as he did are going to do just fine.
Top 10 Photos Of 2014
Here are 10 of the favorite images I made this year — some beach, some color, some solitude. Enjoy, and happy holidays!
Remembering Ron Coffman
For many of its 67 years as a printed magazine, a long run that ended in July, Golf World wasn’t quite a one-man band but there weren’t many instruments. During a couple of the decades that Golf World was the game’s journal of record, when it was published in Southern Pines, N.C., down the frontage road from the LobSteer and across Highway One from the Sheraton, two men fronted the little magazine that could.
To be sure Dick Taylor and Ron Coffman had a small supporting cast — from young associate editors like me who stopped by on the way to somewhere else, to librarian Jane LaMarche, who was as much of an institution as her bosses — but from the 1960s through the 1980s to think of Golf World was to think of Taylor and Coffman.
Taylor was the longtime editor-in-chief, Coffman the managing editor — each involved in producing hundreds, if not more, editions of the weekly that provided loyal readers with the scores and the scoop. Dick died in 1997, around the same time as Ben Hogan. Ron passed away peacefully Monday at age 78, a number that in his prime as a very capable golfer he not necessarily would have been proud of.
Ron was in the mold of other golf writers-editors (Charles Price, Al Barkow and Ken Bowden come to mind) with game. He had a compact backswing that couldn’t have loaned Doug Sanders an inch and a competitive spirit to make the most of his tidy game. Twice, 11 years apart (1966 and 1977), he beat his brethren at the Golf Writers Association of America championship, winning the coveted alligator trophy at The Dunes in Myrtle Beach.
I shared a Golf World office with Coffman for a couple of years at the Access Road location in the 1980s. I remember his strong opinions on things golf and otherwise. I hear his whistling. I smell his cigarettes. And I see him waiting by typesetter Kay Fowler, her fingers a blur of speed, for the last galley so he could paste it up and point another edition toward the press and himself toward a cold beer.
Ron didn’t write as much for the magazine as Dick did, but he wrote well when he got to cover a major championship, with the knowing perspective of a low-handicap player. Mostly, though, he was Mr. Inside, assembling a product week after week, year after year. The remarkable thing is, despite all the tunes that traveled from Ron’s desk to mine, I never learned to whistle.
Changing the Ryder Cup Odds
Whatever other qualities Paul Azinger has exhibited as a past — and future? — United States Ryder Cup captain, no one can say he doesn’t have a consistent message.
When I saw his quotes in stories by Steve DiMeglio of USA Today and Alan Shipnuck of golf.com in the wake of Europe’s resounding defeat of the U.S. Sunday in the 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Scotland, his comments sounded familiar.
USA Today: “There is a razor-thin line between winning and losing these matches,” Azinger said. “Europe has the intangible right now. They give themselves the extra 1% chance to win through its business model and cohesiveness. Even if you play blackjack perfectly in a casino, the casino still has a very slight edge against you. Right now Europe is the casino and the U.S. is the guy walking to the blackjack table with a fistful of $50s”
Golf.com: “It’s a razor-thin difference between winning and losing,” he says. “We’re not miles away.” But with a rueful chuckle, he added this coda: “If you play perfect blackjack, the house has only a 1% advantage. But in Vegas they build great big casinos on that 1%. Right now Europe is the casino and America is the guy sliding up to the table with a fistful of 50s.”
Azinger clearly likes the casino analogy. Four years ago, prior to the Ryder Cup in Wales, in an interview for a Golf World story I did about the role of captains in the biennial event, he said: “It’s not up to me how they play. It’s up to me to recognize the winning edge at that level is razor-thin. If I can do anything, it’s create the environment to get the proper side of that edge. Vegas has a 1- or 1½-percent edge in blackjack, and they kick [butt] in blackjack. I just wanted to get that 1-percent edge. I didn’t feel the burden to motivate anybody. I knew it was up to the players. All I could do was control the controllables.”
Well, the Americans have lost three consecutive — and eight of the last 10 — Ryder Cups and the “controllables” are on a lot of folks’ minds as the latest U.S. loss gets dissected with the eagerness of a high school biology class with a new shipment of frogs and tweezers.
No doubt captains can and do count in the Ryder Cup. Maybe it’s the 1 percent that Azinger — whose winning “pod” and “like personalities” approach at Valhalla in 2008 that was part of the first U.S. win since 1999 wasn’t utilized by the three successive U.S. captains — talks about. Maybe it’s even more than that.
Certainly many of the Gleneagles post-mortems are centering on U.S. captain Tom Watson and what he did or didn’t do two decades after guiding America to a Ryder Cup win in 1993. The man whose golf game has been so uniquely full of life so often in his 50s and 60s didn’t have the same verve as a 65-year-old skipper of a team missing several top American players. PGA of America president Ted Bishop went old-school in selecting Watson, and the pencils and chalk broke. A country, once again, was no match for a continent.
I don’t think the Ryder Cup means more to Europe than the U.S., but it means something slightly different. That was evident again at Gleneagles, as it had been at Medinah, Celtic Manor, the K Club, Oakland Hills, The Belfry, Valderrama and Oak Hill — all the places there have been happy day-after headaches for the “Ode to Joy” gang starting in 1995. There may be an X factor that has no explanation. That was never more true than on the second day of the matches last week when Ian Poulter, clearly struggling in contrast to his superhuman last several Ryder Cups, had a pivotal and unlikely pitch-in that meant so much for his side.
So what should the Americans do so that their clothes, not those of the their European counterparts, might be stinking of champagne on a Sunday night in September?
Consider what has worked.
Tony Jacklin, who led Europe’s resurgence as its captain in the 1980s, told me in 2010 that Azinger was the only subsequent captain who had picked his brain about the Ryder Cup success. Jacklin had no deep secrets — he made sure everything was first class, oozed confidence and tried to be a true friend to his charges during the matches — but that Azinger sought his wisdom says a lot. Azinger’s team-building methods, broadly if not specifically, should be considered in 2016 and beyond.
It would be a radical change, but give the captain the opportunity to select his entire team, not just a couple of players. Azinger had increased the number of U.S. picks to four so that the squad might suit his ideal, but Watson — somewhat surprisingly, given his forthright approach to playing the game — reduced it to three.
Regardless of the specific evolution of the American captaincy or team between now and Hazeltine National in 2016, the status quo doesn’t seem to be an option. What happened in Scotland did not stay there. The man (or, why not, woman?) calling the shots and the men hitting them need to do different, and better. With rare exception, for a long time now, the percentages, whatever they are, aren’t adding up to a hundred for the U.S.
Two For The Show
Phil Mickelson wasn’t going to win the BMW Championship before he bailed on the final two rounds at Cherry Hills, but his exit formalized what, thanks to injury and ugly golf — or both — has been in view for weeks. With Mickelson’s early exit from Colorado, although it probably won’t be a priority for spectators disappointed not to see him this weekend, an era is officially over.
Each season from 1993 through 2013, either Mickelson or Tiger Woods — or both — won a PGA Tour event. That is 21 years, a generation, a lot of success for the two men who have defined this span of golf that began in one century and continued into another.
Seventy-nine wins for Woods in the period, 41 for Mickelson (whose other tour win, as an amateur at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open, predates it). A total of 120 victories that are the statistical lumber of their roles over two decades that have been dominating, captivating, mystifying, aggravating — sometimes all at once.
Without a victory by either golfer in the hyphenated 2013-14 PGA Tour season, during which the two stars were primarily frustrated by their ineffectiveness, the streak is over. It says Mickelson is 44 and Woods is 38 and that nothing is forever. It says they have been superb and tenacious golfers and we have been fortunate to watch them go, styles as different as right and left, disparate except for their appetite to be clutching silver or crystal after 72 holes.
Their tango at the top — Woods leading — compares favorably to previous duos who have won tournaments over long stretches. Over the past century four other winning pairs who were part of such enduringly successful streaks come to mind, every one of the golfers a legend.
Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, from 1918 through 1938, matched the 21 straight years of Mickelson and Woods. The next power twosome, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, had an even longer run if you throw out 1943, the heart of World War II. Excluding that season, when neither won, the Snead-Hogan run went from 1936 through 1961, 25 straight seasons. (The only years Snead didn’t have a victory in that period were 1947 and 1959.)
As Snead and Hogan were winding down, the two other eras were beginning.
When Mickey Wright won the 1956 Jacksonville Open, that started 23 consecutive years of winning on the LPGA Tour by she or Kathy Whitworth that concluded with Whitworth’s victory at the 1978 National Jewish Hospital Open. Whitworth would win a record 88 titles, Wright 82.
Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did the women one better on the PGA Tour, a 24-year stretch that started with Palmer’s 1955 Canadian Open triumph and ended with Nicklaus’ 1978 IVB-Philadelphia Classic title. Palmer (1955-71), Nicklaus (1962-78) and Whitworth (1962-78) have the longest individual streaks on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour with at least one victory a year, 17. Those records figure to last a long time as surely will Gary Player’s 28 consecutive years (1955-82) of winning a tournament somewhere around the globe.
We’ll see in a few months whether Woods and Mickelson have the stuff to resume winning, to start a new streak to follow the old one, which began with Mickelson’s victory at the 1993 Buick Invitational of California and ended when Woods won the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
It won’t be easy for either of them, at or loitering at the top for so long. Golf years are not quite dog years. The very best keep their bark before we notice, or sometimes accept, their bite is gone. But with both Woods and Mickelson being shut out this season, age cannot be ignored. Win or lose, as for a generation, many will be watching.