Unlikely champion Calvin Peete earns his niche in golf the hard way

Calvin Peete had three strikes against him before he ever picked up a golf club: his age, his race, and a crooked left arm.

He didn't start playing until he was 23, having dropped out of school after the eighth grade to help support a large family by picking vegetables from dawn to dusk. He spent most of his life on a farm with 18 brothers and sisters from his father's two marriages.

With that many youngsters around, maybe it's no wonder he fell out of a tree and broke his arm when he was 12. When the arm healed it was bent. As a consequence, Peete violates one of golf's cardinal rules by swinging with a crooked left arm.

Being black never helps in golf either. Today's champions tend to come from all-white country clubs and upscale college campuses. Peete came up the long way. Dorothy's problematic journey in the Wizard of Oz has nothing on his climb to the top of his sport. But for Calvin Peete, three strikes were not enough to put him out.

This year, at the age of 39, he bloomed late to win four tournaments and $318 ,470, fourth on the money list behind only Craig Stadler, Ray Floyd, and Tom Kite . . . and a notch ahead of Tom Watson who won the US and British Opens. In December he will become the first black to represent the US in World Cup play, where he will join Bob Gilder, in Acapulco.

Peete has been named the most improved player on the PGA Tour by Golf Digest. He has been named the most accurate player in the game by just about everyone who follows golf at all.

For the second season in a row, Peete leads the tour statistics in both driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation. He hit .813 percent of the fairways and .724 percent of the greens he played this year.

Maybe all of us should be playing golf with a bent left arm, conventional wisdom notwithstanding.

''In a way it helps me,'' says Peete. ''My arm naturally stays close to my side on the downswing, which helps me swing the club into the ball from inside the target line. After I've hit the ball, my left arm folds naturally. My swing repeats, and that's essential at this level of play.''

Attaining this level took more perseverance than talent.

''I've always been a natural athlete,'' Peete says, ''but until some friends exposed me to golf I had no interest in it at all. Just about that time I saw a tournament on television and learned that Jack Nicklaus was making $200,000 a year chasing that little ball. I figured I could be happy with a third that much , so I decided to give it a try.''

Largely self-taught, Peete began to play in amateur tournaments and eventually entered the tour qualifying school. The first two years he failed. The third time, in the spring of 1975, he made it.

His first three years on tour he averaged about $20,000 a season, barely enough to pay his expenses. Then in 1979 he leaped to $122,000, and he stayed in that range until his quantum advance of 1982, gaining additional attention with diamonds in his teeth (he since has removed them).

''My improvement is due mainly to more patience and better putting,'' he says. ''I've never been a long hitter, and it used to bother me having to hit 2 -irons to the green all the time. Now I accept it and don't try to force anything.

''I've never been a good putter either, but I'm making more putts than before because I've smoothed out my takeaway. I used to jerk the club away from the ball too abruptly. Now I keep the putter low and slow going back from the ball.

''Making more putts has given me the confidence to get more aggressive with my approach shots. I've always hit a lot of greens, but usually I'd just try to put the ball in the center of the green, playing it safe. Lately I've been hitting my approach shots at the hole more often, and that has helped me make more putts.

''I'm still not very good at reading greens, but I'm working on it. Maybe it helps me in the major championships that everybody has some trouble with the greens.''

Peete finished 10th in the US Open this summer, paired with Nicklaus the final day, and came in third in the PGA championship. He always seems to be one under par in big tournaments on difficult courses, where his straight shooting stands him in excellent stead.

''First I had to learn how to qualify for tournaments, then how to make the 36-hole cut, then how to make money, then how to win,'' he says. ''The next step is learning how to win a major championship.''

Peete's goal, with his financial future all but assured, is to become the first black player to win a major. People like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson think he has a good chance in 1983, when he should have absolutely no strikes against him.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.