By William “Duke” Smither
“As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.” (Clifford Roberts, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, from 1931-1976)
There are probably as many theories why more black kids don’t play golf as the preponderance of pea-brain musings and conspiracy theories associated with President Barrack Hussein Obama and his family. Surely, racial stereotyping and discrimination can be heavy in the mix, in my opinion. But, even as a child, growing up in the Jim Crow South of Kentucky, I had a few theories of my own– although at opposite ends of the spectrum of bigoted assumptions gripping irrational, narrow minded protectors and heirs of ‘White Privilege.’ Yet, those were some of the zany presumptions that first came to mind when I heard of professional golfer Calvin Peete’s recent death, at 71, of lung cancer, on April 29, 2015, in Atlanta, Georgia.
In reflection, I even imagined the tattered pages of golfing history, turning a tad, in 1975, when Peete earned his PGA Tour card and, that same year, when Lee Elder became the first African-American to play in the Masters Tournament. Two years later, in the wake of those milestones, Clifford Roberts, long-time Chairman of the Masters Tournament, from 1934-1976, and U.S. Golf Association (USGA) administrator, died at age 83, allegedly from “suicide by gunshot… on the banks of Ike’s Pond at Augusta National,” amid reports of ill health, according to newspaper archives. Well known for his comments about ‘keeping caddies black,’ Robert’s death was on the heels of black golfers, like Elder, Peete and others, being routine targets of racialized taunts, threats and insults, at a time when such shameful antics were being toned down.
Black caddies, once required by Jim Crow “color bar” regulations—yet, prized for their intricate knowledge of the game and golf course contours– were beginning to fizzle and fade, when a combination of motorized golf carts, human decency and public respect was emerging, during America’s Post-Civil Rights Era. Racist sentiments, like those publicly expressed by Roberts, at minimum, were heading underground. It was a time when African-Americans eagerly tracked the trails of black activities and accomplishments as the various walls of segregation came tumbling down. You didn’t have to love the game of golf to follow black golfers, back then. So, it was mostly racial pride that made me think about the criticism, threats and hijinks that Calvin Peete and other golfing pioneers must have faced.
On the Shoulders of Black Giants
Of course, to really appreciate the obstacles African-Americans faced in golf, you’d have to go back in time— even before golfing archives recorded Theodore “Teddy” Rhodes (1913 – 1969) as the African-American professional golfer who broke the color barrier in 1948, by playing in the U.S. Open.
And, I still get a chuckle at how John Matthew Shippen, Jr. (1879 – 1968) became the first African-American golfer, before blacks were banned from competing professionally, by ‘passing’ as a Native American. Shippen (whose father was African-American and mother was Shinnecock Indian) entered the USGA-sanctioned tournament with a “full-blooded” Native-American, Oscar Bunn, amid protests and threats at the at Shinnecock Hills golf course, in South Hampton, New York, in 1896.
Because of the history of blacks in golf, deep down inside my own bones, I’ll admit to having some of affinity for the game, but it was football, baseball and running track that I loved the most– like the free air I breathed. Except for the kind of hoops we played on concrete and asphalt playgrounds with steel chain ‘nets’, while talking smack and playing the ‘dozens’, basketball wasn’t my shtick. And, neither was golf– except for that one summer vacation, where I was learning to caddy and shag little white golf balls, between chores on my grandparents farm, for good money, at a public golf course, in Zanesville, Ohio. Even then, though always accompanied by a couple of “Black-Dutch” friends from church, I felt the pricking stings of racism– the stupid looks and ignorant comments from a few rabble-rousing fools– which often forced me to recall these wise lines: “Sticks and stones will break my bones… But, words will never harm me.” But, now, in recalling those awkward days, my musings turn to Calvin Peete, as well as all those shoulders of black golfers he stood on.
Over the years, I’ve met some fairly famous and much-respected athletes. In high school, I met Muhammed Ali– while he was still “Cassius Clay”— but, he’s still one of my all-time favorites. I never met Calvin Peete until recently, not personally, but through some research I was doing for a another contribution to an African-American History reference-and-teaching website (BlackPast.Org). I found that Peete was born during World War II, on July 18, 1943, in Detroit, Michigan. And, though he was born and raised in the North, as opposed to my being from the South, it seemed that the counterproductive silliness of America’s style of racism chased him, too.
Yet, it didn’t stop Peete from becoming the most successful African American golfer on the PGA Tour, with 12 wins, a record surpassed only by the famed Tiger Woods who turned professional in 1996, when he was just 20 years old. Peete turned professional just before he reached 30, but became the fourth African-American to win on the PGA Tour, joining Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder. Later dubbed “Mr. Accuracy” by fellow professional golfers for his ability to regularly put the little white ball onto the fairway, in 1983, he did it a whopping 84.55 percent of the time in 87 PGA Tour rounds!
Peete was widely known and respected, not just for the skill-sets he bought to golf but how he played the game. For right-handed golfers, golf purists say the left arm should remain straight during swings. But Peete, never having a golf lesson before turning professional, came up with his own method to achieve the accuracy stats he owns. While the term “handicap,” in golf, refers to some numerical expression of an individual’s ability to play golf (i.e., the lower the handicap, assumes the better the golfer, etc.), Peete’s physical limitation, a permanently bent left arm, defied golfing rationale as he converted his physical “handicap” into an astonishing benefit while developing his game. He not only chased golf’s little white balls, after hitting them, he chased the bigoted stereotypes, leftover from the bygone years of unbridled racism, too. He was cool… “Kangol hat” cool, like the ones he sported, at a time when many blacks still referred to golf as “the white-man’s game,” no matter what you wore—or, who governed golf’s fairways.
Whites Only… No Blacks Allowed
According to one sports writer, professional golf’s whites-only or “Caucasian-only rule” wasn’t put aside until the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of America held the area’s first-ever pro tournament at San Diego Country Club in January 1952. According to archives, that’s when the concerted legal efforts of boxing’s ex-heavyweight champion, Joe Louis (1914-1981), and other African-American golfers began to pay off, in their fighting the rule. Among them was Bill Spiller (1913-1988), a two-sport high school athlete who also didn’t take up the game of golf until he was around 30. A college graduate, Spiller had moved from Oklahoma to California for a teaching career, but wound up working as a railroad porter to earn enough money to make a decent living.
Like Peete, at the urging of friends, Spiller took up golf around the age of 30, playing and winning in blacks-only tournaments. Then, after being denied the right to enter the 1948 “Richmond Open” (Richmond, California) by the PGA of America (1916 – ), not the PGA Tour which broke away in 1968, Spiller began his many years of challenging the PGA of America’s authority to say who could participate. At that time, according to archives, its segregationist rules stipulated that participating players had to be “Caucasian.” Spillar and fellow golfer Ted Rhodes filed a lawsuit, expressing that their denial was illegal within the “Taft-Hartley Act” (aka, Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 29 U.S.C.), which effectively restricts the power of ‘labor unions.’ The PGA of America sidestepped the matter by subsequently sponsoring “invitational tournaments.” Blacks were simply not “invited.” In a zany turn of events, Joe Louis was eventually allowed to play in San Diego, within some symbolic gesture, since he was an “amateur.” Spiller, a “professional,” was not allowed to play, something archives reveal that stuck in his craw until he died. They also show that the PGA of America, deep within its annual report, revealed it only quietly erased its “Caucasians-only clause,” in November 1961, long after Spiller had a realistic chance to make it.
Peete, on the other hand, won the Professional Golf Association’s (PGA) “Vardon Trophy,” in 1984, for PGA Tour leaders with the lowest scoring average. He was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup teams in 1983 and 1985 and among the ‘top 10’ in the “Official World Golf Ranking” for several weeks, during the rankings’ 39-week inaugural year, 1986.
No Bed of Roses
However, his run for the winner circles was no bed of roses, either. The eighth of nine children born to a Detroit auto factory worker, he was 12 when he fell from a cherry tree near his grandmother’s house in Haiti, Missouri, breaking his left elbow in three places. It was set badly, fused and left him with the permanently bent left-arm.
Two years later, he moved to Florida with his dad, but left school, working as a farm laborer, picking beans and corn and cutting sugar cane. They later moved to upstate New York where Peete didn’t begin his golf pursuits until he was in his early 20s. Yet, from jump, he immediately excelled at the game many kids pickup earlier-on in life. Peete learned the game while peddling goods out of a car to migrant workers in Rochester, New York, playing mostly on the public course at Genesee Valley Park. At 23, he was taken to Rochester’s course for the first time, essentially teaching himself to play. After turning professional, six or seven years later, he eventually became the fourth African-American to win on the PGA Tour, joining Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder.
His first tournament win came four years after earning his PGA Tour card, when he was 36, at the Milwaukee Open, in 1979. The next year he qualified for the Masters in Augusta, Georgia and became the first African-American to win The Players Championship in Vedra Beach, Florida, five years later. During his 20-year career on the PGA Tour, Peete finished fourth on the money list in 1982 and had two-win seasons in 1983, ’85 and ’86. Peete’s last victory came at New Orleans in March 1986. But, in addition to his permanently damaged arm, Peete was also dogged by back problems, occasionally taking time off to get back in shape. He had suffered back problems ever since joining the Tour. It was a weak spinal disc that often generated a lot of pain when walking. The back pain, not uncommon for golfers, was mostly a nuisance for Peete, not bothering his swing much. However, it became more aggravated as his scheduled playing time increased in later years. So, he decided to withdraw until he was ready to play without the pain.
His success waned in the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1995 he appeared in 21 events. His last PGA Tour start came at the 1995 Player’s Championship, ironically the same year that 20 year old Tiger Woods joined the professional ranks. After retiring from competition in 1999, he continued to play in the Legends of Golf Tournaments until 2009.
Frankly, I still have no desire to play golf. But, I’ll always remember Peete for just being ‘dead-eyed and dead-on,’ as well as “Kangol hat” cool and tenacious within the awfully long shadows of golf’s unbridled bigotry. To me, Peete’s legacy exemplifies how success is the result of hard work and dogged determination, not just luck. He, and other pioneers like him, set the bar in golf for others to chase, as the walls of racial ignorance, stereotypes and intolerance continue to crumble and fall, even today.
He and his first wife, Christine, were the parents of five children: Charlotte, Calvin, Rickie, Dennis and Kalvanetta Peete. He and his second wife, Elaine (Pepper) Peete, had two daughters: Aisha and Aleya. Fittingly, the family resided in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, a seaside community best known as the home to the PGA Tour and The Players Championship, at the Sawgrass Golf Course, where professional golfers of all races gather and chase their dreams.
Ed Zieralski, “Golf’s Caucasian-only rule began to fade 60 years ago in San Diego,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan 23, 2012; George B. Kirsch, Othello Harris and Claire Elaine Nolte, Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000); Pete McDaniel and Craig Bowen, Martin Davis and Geoff Russell, eds., Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf (Greenwich: The American Golfer. 2000); Crouse, Karen, “Treasure of Golf’s Sad Past, Black Caddies Vanish in Era of Riches,” New York Times, April 4, 2012; http://www.complex.com/sports/2011/06/the-most-racist-moments-in-golf-history; http://www.blackpast.org/aah/peete-calvin-1943-2015.