In two days, golf lost two of its historic Black figures. Calvin Peete, who won more on the PGA Tour than any African-American before Tiger Woods, passed on Wednesday in Atlanta. Friday, Pete Brown, the first Black golfer to win a PGA Tour event, died in Augusta, Ga.
Peete and Brown represent the kind of fortitude, talent and will that made it smooth sailing for Woods to join pro golf in 1996. They had already done the heavy lifting.
Brown, who was 80, suffered from strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years. He had a 17-year PGA Tour career that saw him make history by winning the 1964 Waco Turner Open, which in turn, validated Black professional golfers.
Brown also won the Andy Williams-San Diego Open six years later. In Brown’s first victory, he made an up-and-down par at beat Jacksonville native Dan Sikes by one shot. Six years later, he rallied from seven shots behind in the final round to beat Tony Jacklin in a playoff at Torrey Pines.
Like most Blacks in the ’40s and ’50s, Brown was a caddie who picked up the game. He won four times on the national tour for Black players when the PGA was segregated. He turned pro two years after Charlie Sifford broke the golf color barrier in 1961 (Sifford died at 92 in February).
Brown is survived by his wife of 58 years, Margaret, and six daughters.
Peete, who was 71, was a remarkable story. He did not take up golf until his 20s. When he was 12, he fell from a tree, injuring his left elbow. He was never able to straighten out that arm, which is critical to playing golf. But he developed his own style of swing and went on to became one of the most accurate ball-strikers of his time. He won 12 PGA tournaments—including the prestigious Players Championship that takes place this week in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fl.—and earned $2.3 million in his career.
After the 1983 Masters at Augusta National, Peete was asked his opinion of the traditions at the Masters.
“Until Lee Elder, the only blacks at the Masters were caddies or waiters,” he said. “To ask a Black man what he feels about the traditions of the Masters is like asking him how he feels about his forefathers who were slaves.”
In 1982, Peete earned his GED, which allowed him to play on the U.S.’s Ryder Cup team. Peete played on two Ryder Cup teams. On the 1983 squad with golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and others, he helped the United States to a narrow victory.
Nicklaus, regarded as the greatest golfer of all time before Woods showed up, said on his website Wednesday: “Calvin Peete was a remarkable golfer; he overcame a lot of adversity, including a physical limitation, to become a very, very good golfer. Over the years, we played a lot of golf together, and I was amazed at what he could get out of his game.
“He was an extremely straight driver of the golf ball; a very smart golfer; and, you might say, he was very much an overachiever.”
All Black golfers of Brown’s and Peete’s eras were overachievers, for the sport that was exclusively white hardly wanted to see them on courses previously reserved for whites only. But Brown showed the way by winning on tour and Peete kicked butt.
They set the standard for Tiger Woods and others yet to come by playing with skill and honor and upholding their heritage. Their deaths are golf’s losses.