Saturday, July 29, 2006

The slender elderly man holding court on the fairway at Langston Golf Course yesterday morning with a group of young black children summed up his life and his lesson for them with this dead-on verbal strike:

“I am considered the best ball-striker in the history of the game,” Calvin Peete said as the kids surrounded him. “A black man. So they can’t say that we can’t do it.”

Calvin Peete did it and did it well. He was considered one of golf’s most accurate drivers when he played in the 1980s and won 11 PGA Tour events, including the Tournament Players Championship in 1985. He is on the short list of pioneers in golf who have blazed the trail Tiger Woods has since set on fire. Peete, like Charles Sifford and Lee Elder before him, not only had to blaze that trail as one of the few black golfers to have an impact on the game, but did so while battling a debilitating disorder — Tourette’s syndrome, which wasn’t diagnosed until seven years ago.

He had it since he was a young man — the neck-jerking, the shoulder movements — but it became more pronounced, and eventually drove him off the Champions Tour by 2001. But Peete left his mark on that tour as well, and is still listed number one in driving accuracy percentage — 80.9 percent — in 56 senior events.

Peete, 63, says his Tourette’s is now under control. When not with his family in Florida, he spends much of his time coming to places like Langston and helping mentors like fellow African-American Golfers Hall of Famer Jimmy Garvin — who runs the course and oversees myriad youth golf and education programs at Langston — convince young black men and women that they can succeed. Not just in golf, but in life.

“I try to stress education with the kids and the respect of bettering ourselves,” Peete said. “When I talk about golf, I always try to connect it to the lessons of life. I know that is what they do here at Langston, tie the golf to life lessons.

“Kids need the expert guidance to make sure they get on the right track. They need the right teachers. Mentors and teachers are very important.”

Garvin is a legendary mentor for the programs he runs and assists at Langston. He helped organize a Hall of Fame weekend in the District to raise money for the youth golf and education programs at Langston. Peete’s appearance at a tournament yesterday was part of that, as is the basketball clinic Calvin Murphy was scheduled to run today in the District.

To have someone like Peete — a black man who has walked the course with Jack Nicklaus and competed against Lee Trevino — adds weight to Garvin’s lessons. Despite the Tiger Woods phenomenon, there are even fewer black golfers today. Woods is the only one.

“It means a lot to have someone of his stature come back to Langston Golf Course — a course built in 1939 for blacks and a place where Calvin played years ago — and give his time and energy,” Garvin said. “He feels the same way as I do about kids, and in particular the support of young African-American kids.”

One child asked Peete how he started as a professional golfer.

“After two years of picking up the golf clubs, I was watching television one day, and I saw Lee Elder playing golf, with the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus,” Peete said. “I was really impressed. I said, ‘There’s a black man playing with the best golfer in the world. If I practice just a little bit more, I could be doing the same thing.’ That is what made me want to pursue a professional career.

“Other than that, I was like everybody else, I just wanted to go out and beat my buddies. But when I saw Lee Elder, I said I wanted to play against the best like he did.”

Peete would do just that, and has nothing but fond memories of playing on the PGA Tour.

“Jack Nicklaus and I were playing once at the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass Country Club,” he said. “We were playing the last round, maybe the 13th or 14th hole. It was a narrow hole and pretty long. Jack hit a three-wood off the tee. I hit my driver from everywhere, I don’t care where it was at.

“I’m 10 or 15 yards in front of him. He hit first, and he is on the green. When I got ready to hit, 185 yards with about a 20-mile-an-hour wind, and when I got over the ball, I am not even thinking this. My caddie was standing beside him and his caddie, and he said to his caddie, ‘Watch when Calvin hits this two-iron, I bet he don’t take a blade of grass.’ I hit that two-iron like a frozen rope, and as we were walking, Jack said, ‘You know Calvin, you have to teach me that shot.’ I said, ‘Me teach the greatest golfer in the world?’ He said, ‘Calvin, we learn from each other. We help each other, and if there is anything I can ever do for you, don’t hesitate to ask.’ That was special.”

Despite Woods’ popularity not translating to more players on the tour, Peete, whose wife Pepper runs the First Tee youth golf program in Jacksonville, Fla., remains hopeful a new generation of young black men and women are coming to courses across the country.

“Tiger has had a great impact on young kids,” Peete said. “My wife is the director of the First Tee program in Jacksonville, and we have noticed more and more kids coming out, 8 and 9 years old, and they all know Tiger Woods.”

But Peete doesn’t know Tiger Woods.

“I have never met Tiger Woods,” he said. “But, by the same token, he has never met me.”

He should, because Calvin Peete helped clear the fairway for Tiger Woods.

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