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Calvin Peete dies at 71; PGA star inspired black golfers

Calvin Peete, one of the first successful black golfers in a predominantly white sport, has died. He was 71.

At an age when most future golf stars practice all day, a teenage Calvin Peete took to the cornfields to work.

It was the first in a series of menial jobs the grade-school dropout held before trying his hand at what he called "a silly game."

"If it wasn't for golf," he later said, "I'd probably still be peddling jewelry or be in the sugar mills somewhere."

Instead, Peete forged a successful career — and a legacy for black players in a predominantly white sport — by winning a dozen tournaments on the PGA Tour through the mid-1990s. He died Wednesday in Atlanta at the age of 71.

His death was announced by the PGA Tour. No cause was given.

"Calvin was an inspiration to so many people," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said. "He started in the game relatively late in life but quickly became one of the tour's best players."

His victories stretched over 20 seasons and kept him ranked among the money leaders with more than $2.3 million in lifetime earnings. Fans knew him for an awkward swing that served as a reminder of his inauspicious beginnings.

Born in Detroit on July 18, 1943, he lived as a youngster with his grandmother in Missouri. There, he fell out of a tree and suffered a broken elbow that never properly healed, preventing him from straightening his left arm for the rest of his life.

In a game where a straight left arm is considered essential form, that alone might have kept him from success.

After moving in with his father in Florida and doing field work, Peete sold jewelry to migrant workers and managed an apartment building. In 1966, friends coaxed him out to a golf course by telling him that they were going to clambake.

"I hit all the fairways," he said. "But I never got the ball off the ground."

Two years passed before Peete saw a pioneering black player, Lee Elder, on television and was inspired to pursue golf full-time.

His determination and accuracy off the tee — even with a bent arm — landed him on the tour in 1976 at the age of 32. After several tough seasons, he broke through with a victory at the 1979 Greater Milwaukee Open.

Though he faced racism in the game, including country clubs that excluded blacks, Peete credited predecessors such as Elder, Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes for paving the way.

"For me, it's been a cakewalk," he said. "I'm no pioneer, but I hope I can serve as an inspiration to black youths to take up this game."

His career highlights included four victories in 1982, a Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average on tour in 1984 and — a year later — a win at the Players Championship.

"Over the years, we played a lot of golf together, and I was amazed at what he could get out of his game," Jack Nicklaus said in a statement. "He was … a very smart golfer and, you might say, he was very much an overachiever."

Retiring from the PGA Tour in 1995, Peete continued to play on the Champions Tour through 2001, after which he devoted much of his time to working with youths and charities in the game.

He is survived by his wife, Pepper, and seven children.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

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