Imagine yourself innocent of golf. Yet somehow here you are, wandering the cushiony expanses of a prestigious tournament, the Crosby in early February. At first you marvel at the splendid setting of the event, the descending verdant crescent of the 1st fairway at Spyglass Hill, fully 600 yards long, opening out through dark pines and cypresses to a view of the Pacific.
You are drawn on by how breathtakingly far the white speck of ball can be driven by the finest players. You walk with them, watching how precise men can be at lofting iron shots twice the length of a football field onto tiny greens. Their putts are comically delicate, satisfying in their sense of the final touch.
Yet you aren't unequivocally entranced. You have plenty of time to muse between shots, and you note that golf must be one of the most ludicrous of games, the farthest from any basic utility. It seems an acquired taste, an odd set of circumstances given meaning only by the depth of the players' and gallery's concern over where that ball comes to rest.
The absorbed spectators can fairly be regarded as a kind of Greek chorus, murmuring after each shot, imparting in those involuntary exhalations the received wisdom and lore of the game. True, many of these people are dressed as if they have been talked into impersonating Easter eggs, and some of the women obviously adhere to the structural school of coiffure. But their intentness saves them from ridicule.
Just now they are fixed on the approaching foursome of Tom Watson and Calvin Peete and their respective amateur partners, Bob Willits and Sandy Tatum. The whispering behind the tee teaches the eavesdropper that Tatum was the 1942 NCAA champion and is a past president of the USGA. "Watch the hitch in his backswing," it's said. Indeed, there is such a little pause. "Now Watson will be high and long," the chorus says. "And Peete, ah Peete, he'll be short and straight. He led the tour in driving accuracy last year, you know. Eighty-one percent of his drives are in the fairway." And so it comes to pass.
Yet when you get out along the fairway, you find that Peete's ball has actually come to rest only a few yards short of Watson's. "Nicklaus calls Peete 'sneaky long,' " confides the Easter-egg chorus. "Every year he drives farther."
Walking toward the green, which Peete has reached in regulation—"He led the tour in that, too"—the chorus fills the air with the remarkable Peete story, already a part of golfing folklore. "One of 19 children from his father's two marriages, he worked as a stoop laborer in the Florida fields when he was a boy. Became a traveling salesman of clothing and trinkets to migrant workers. Used to have two diamond chips in his front teeth to make an indelible impression on his clientele: the Diamond Man. Didn't pick up a golf club until he was 23. Has a left arm that cannot be straightened—his elbow was broken in three places when he fell out of a tree at 12—so it is some sort of miracle that he can even play, let alone hit so accurately, when everyone knows a good swing requires a straight left arm."
Thus enlightened, the observer better appreciates Peete's slightly syncopated walk. Unable to let his left arm fall completely to his side, he carries it jauntily as if touching an invisible banister.
The chorus continues reciting Peete's accomplishments: his four tournament victories in the last half of 1982, his $318,470 in winnings for the year, which ranked him fourth, one notch above Watson. As the gallery arranges itself about the green, there's heard this sentence, pronounced with moral relief, "Isn't it good for the game to finally get a really fine black golfer?" There are ripples of assent, giving rise to the momentary impression that perhaps golf is self-conscious about its historically clubby, moneyed, WASP-ish nature. There's a hush as Peete strokes his birdie putt. It slides by the hole. The gallery groans. "Oh, if only he could putt," comes the murmur, the final judgment.
Peete tied for second in the Crosby, steadily constructing rounds of 68 and three 70s. Later, Tatum spoke of the privilege of being Peete's partner: "It was an extraordinary experience for me. He's as competent a striker of the ball as I've ever seen, with the sole and singular exception of Ben Hogan, and he strikes it identically, time after time. In the whole of the Crosby he hit only three bad shots."