A quarter of a century earlier he had been a skinny youngster wearing a sweat-stained T shirt, bending over in a field that all but steamed and hissed under a brutal Florida sun. Last July his dark arm reached out again, not for green beans or lettuce but for something entirely different. No longer were Calvin Peete's trousers filthy with loam, nor was he an uneducated stoop laborer, a picker with no future beyond his next bushel. Instead, Peete was on the 18th green at the Tuckaway Country Club in Milwaukee, surrounded by thousands of golf fans and by reporters, photographers and tournament officials in blazers. The sun was shining, but benignly. Calvin Peete bent down, and this time picked up a golf ball. He had just won the Greater Milwaukee Open.
How far a man travels, how much he improves his life from start to finish, is a fair gauge of success. By such standards, Calvin Peete is nothing short of exceptional. First of all, there is his color. Peete is a black man in a white man's sport. Also, because of a childhood accident in which his left elbow was fractured in three places, he cannot straighten that arm. Furthermore, he is a product of poverty, one of 19 children his father had in two marriages, an eighth-grade dropout who labored in the fields of south central Florida with no better prospects than to work like a mule for the rest of his life. Pure chance put him on a golf course for the first time 14 years ago. And finally, Calvin Peete is the golf pro with two diamonds in his front teeth.
Now to be black and a professional golfer is noteworthy, but to be a black professional golfer with jewelry in your mouth, that is something else. Golf is a grand old game, content to be a little musty, a sport in which change comes slowly. But it does change, and Peete is proof of its evolutionary nature. The roots of black golf are thin, but they exist. The first black golfers, Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller, came along 30 years ago. Today they are all but forgotten, but without them Peete could not be what he is now: a tournament winner and a member in good standing of the PGA club.
Because Rhodes and Spiller were significant, Peete can be special, can flash his diamonds at the Establishment, because, paradoxically, he is no longer very special. In 1974, when Lee Elder became the first black to qualify for the Masters, he had to hire a public-relations man to handle his publicity and personal appearances. Last year, a month before Milwaukee, Peete finished high enough at the U.S. Open to earn an exemption to this season's Masters—and hardly anyone noticed. As Peete puts it, "To be first at something is a different song."
Nevertheless, to accomplish what he has, Peete has had to have diamond-cut diamond resolve. From the beginning—almost from the moment he hit his first golf ball—Peete believed he could become a tournament golfer although, at about the same age, Jack Nicklaus had already won the U.S. Open. To Peete golf was a game, and after what he had endured as a child, he figured any game could be learned.
Peete was born in Detroit on July 18, 1943 and lived the first 10 years of his life there, the youngest of his mother's nine children. Then his parents separated, and his mother sent him to his grandmother's place outside Hayti, in the bootheel of Missouri. "You can call it a farm, I guess," says Peete. "She had some chickens and a few turkeys. But it was better than the streets." Two years later his father, who had remarried and was living in Pahokee in Florida's Palm Beach County, came to Hayti to retrieve Calvin. "We're going to start a new family," he told his son. Eventually his father and stepmother had 10 children. Thus Peete went from being the youngest of nine kids to the oldest of 11, from the baby of the family to, in effect, the firstborn. He took his responsibilities seriously.
Think of Florida and you think of salt water, sandy beaches and palm trees. But Pahokee is on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, 50 miles inland, almost in the center of the peninsula. It is hot, flat, vegetable-growing country on the edge of the Everglades. Pahokee is well on the other side of paradise. Yet Peete, his schoolteacher wife Christine and their four children still live nearby, in the community of Clewiston. One imagines that the area is a kind of touchstone for Peete.
Calvin worked beside his father in the fields, giving most of what he earned to his parents. Alongside him toiled people from various Caribbean countries. Few could speak English, and most had no concept of the value of U.S. money. "They just took what they were offered," says Peete. "A lot of them couldn't count."
As a picker Calvin rose at 5:30 a.m. and toiled all day. Pickers aged fast. Today, at 36, Peete looks five years older. "It was very hard work," he says. "It was demanding, and the pay was really low. For corn you might get a dollar an hour, but usually you were paid by the bushel. I always thought, 'The harder I work, the more money I'll make.' To me, it was very demeaning. It had no standing at all. It was about as low as you could get." But he holds no grudges, except that today he refuses to grow even a small garden. Peete has had enough of vegetables.
As he worked under the blazing sun, Peete noted the visits of peddlers from Miami who regularly came to sell pants, shoes, shirts—perhaps a cheap suit—to the field hands, few of whom had cars. When he was 17, Peete got himself a peddler's license, loaded up a 1956 Plymouth station wagon and began selling and buying up and down the East, as far north as Rochester, N.Y. He found he could make $200 a week.