PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The PGA Tour mourns the loss of Calvin Peete, a winner of the event 30 years ago and a pioneer who overcame great physical hardship to become a dominant player in the 1980s. Peete died this morning in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 71.
Peete was born July 18, 1943, in Detroit as the eighth of nine children to Dennis and Irenna Peete. He won 12 PGA titles in his career, and of those dozen victories, 11 of them came between 1982 and 1986—all the while playing with a left arm he couldn’t totally extend because of a broken elbow that occurred during a childhood fall.
Peete’s elbow healed incorrectly when his doctor didn’t properly set the arm in a cast. With his easily recognizable swing because of his permanently bent arm, Peete used uncanny accuracy off the tee to become the fourth African-American to win on Tour, joining Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder.
“Calvin was an inspiration to so many people. He started in the game relatively late in life but quickly became one of the best players, winning and winning often despite the hardship of his injured arm,” said PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem. “I can still remember watching Calvin hit drive after drive straight down the middle of the fairway, an amazing display of talent he possessed despite some of his physical limitations. Throughout his life, he gave so much, and we especially noticed it when he moved to Ponte Vedra Beach as he continued to support the community, the PGA Tour and our various charitable pursuits. Along with his wife, Pepper, he made such a difference working with The First Tee and junior golf in this area. Calvin will always be remembered as a great champion and an individual who consistently gave back to the game. We will dearly miss him.”
“Everyone in the family admired and loved him,” said his wife, Pepper Peete. “He took the Peete name to another level. We are so thankful that he was in our lives as a father, husband and role model. He was a blessing, and he will be missed.”
Prior to turning pro, Peete learned the game, starting at age 23, at Genesee Valley Park in Rochester, New York. He was 32 years old when he joined the PGA TOUR as a full-time member in 1976 after making his TOUR debut a year earlier. But Peete’s ascent as a pro was a slow one. He never finished above No. 94 on the money list in his first three years on the circuit.
However, in 1979, he broke through in a big way, winning his first title, at the Greater Milwaukee Open. Four rounds in the 60s led to a five-shot victory over Jim Simons, Victor Regalado and Lee Trevino. The following week, he was again in the hunt, at the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open. Tied for 15th when the final round began, Peete shot a 7-under 63 at Oakwood Country Club but missed making it two wins in a row, finishing two strokes behind winner D.A. Weibring. He completed the year 27th on the final money list, passing the $100,000 mark ($122,481) in earnings for the first time.
In 1982, Peete had a career year, winning four times and making 22 cuts in 27 official starts. He again won the Greater Milwaukee Open and added wins at the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic, the B.C. Open and the Pensacola Open. He finished fourth on the money list, and his four tournament titles matched Craig Stadler and Tom Watson for most on the Tour that year. Peete also proved his dominance by winning both the Driving Accuracy and Greens in Regulation crowns. Between 1981 and 1990, Peete led the Driving Accuracy category every year, and in 1980, the first year the Tour kept records, he was second.
Peete followed his career year in 1983 with another multi-win season—capturing titles at the Georgia-Pacific Atlanta Classic and the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic. That year he made the first of two U.S. Ryder Cup teams, recording a 2-1-1 record at PGA National, including a 1-up singles’ win over Brian Waites in the U.S.’s one-point win over Europe.
In 1984, Peete won the Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke average, something he just missed earning in 1983. His 70.561 average was enough to edge Jack Nicklaus, who finished second. He won a tournament for the third consecutive season, taking the Texas Open by three strokes over Bruce Lietzke.
Peete added two more titles in 1985—along with a third-place finish on the money list—with wins at the Phoenix Open and THE PLAYERS Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach. At TPC Sawgrass, Peete’s final-round 66 gave him a three-shot win over D.A. Weibring. Peete again played for the U.S. in the 1985 Ryder Cup, earning a 2-1-0 mark. Overall, he finished with a 4-2-1 showing in the biennial team event.
Peete’s last two titles came in 1986, at the MONY Tournament of Champions and the USF&G Classic in New Orleans. He curtailed his playing schedule considerably after the 1990 season, appearing in only 21 events between 1991 and 1995. His last start came at the 1995 PLAYERS Championship.
After turning 50, in 1993, he played the Champions Tour full time between 1994 and 2000. He made 158 starts, with his best finish a fourth-place effort at the 1994 Bell Atlantic Classic. Even after retiring from competition, he continued to play in the Legends of Golf, teaming with Mark Hayes in his final two years (2008 and 2009).
In 2002, the African American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame inducted him.
Peete is survived by his wife, Pepper, and his children, Calvin, Dennis, Rickie, Nicole, Kalvanetta, Aisha and Aleya.