Before Tiger Woods, five African-Americans had won on the PGA golf tour, and each one would make an entertaining and inspirational biopic. For example, Calvin Peete, a grade school dropout, came out of the Old, Weird America before the 10,000 Hour Rule to win a dozen tournaments after he turned 35, even though he never tried golf until around his 23rd birthday and was never a strong man. Bruce Weber writes in the New York Times:
Peete’s top win, the 5th major, at age 41
Calvin Peete, whose life traced one of sport’s most triumphant arcs — a school dropout with a crooked left arm who did not pick up a golf club until his 20s, did not join the pro tour until his 30s, and still became one of the leading players of his era and the most successful black professional golfer before Tiger Woods — has died. He was 71.
… A self-taught player who never hit especially long, Peete was one of golf’s most accurate drivers and fairway players. He won his first Professional Golfers Association tour event, the Greater Milwaukee Open, in 1979, and from 1982 through 1986 was among the tour’s most prolific champions, winning 11 tournaments, including four in 1982.
In 1984, he averaged 70.56 shots per round, winning the Vardon Trophy, given annually to the professional golfer with the lowest per-round score. …
His story is Dickensian in its down-and-out beginnings and American in its particular obstacles and eventual rewards. He was born in Detroit on July 18, 1943. According to numerous sources, his parents had nine children, and after they divorced, his father, Dennis, had 10 more.
Calvin lived with his father, a vegetable picker in Pahokee, Fla., in the south-central part of the state, and after he dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help feed the family, he, too, worked in the corn and bean fields. He was unable to do heavy work, however; at age 12, he had fallen out of a tree and broken his left elbow, leaving him unable to straighten the arm.
It was perhaps a serendipitous accident. It is a golfing dictum that for right-handed golfers, the left arm remains straight during a swing, but Peete, who never had a golf lesson before he turned pro, developed his own method, compensating for his handicap and developing a stroke uncanny in its accuracy, or, as his onetime caddy Dolphus Hill said in 1986, “He goes flag on you.”
Peete was regularly among the tour leaders in driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation. …
Peete led the PGA Tour eight straight years in percent of fairways hit off the tee. In 1983 he peaked at avoiding the rough on 84.55% of his tee shots. (In 2014, David Toms led all pros with a 75.49%, despite large technological advances in clubs and balls since about 1990.]
Peete never ranked higher than 128th in driving distance. He was a little bit like a baseball player making the All Star Games in the 1980s by choking up on the bat and trying to hit ‘em where they ain’t like in the Dead Ball Era. The baseball player I’d compare him to might be Ichiro Suzuki: you wouldn’t necessarily advise a kid to follow Peete’s or Suzuki’s strategies, but they made being a fan more interesting because they were so idiosyncratic.
It was in Rochester, in the summer of 1966, that he tried golf for the first time. He was 23. Friends invited him to a fish fry, he recalled in a 1986 interview with Boys’ Life magazine, but they took him to a golf course instead.
“I couldn’t get a ride home,” he said, “so I went along with the fool idea.”
Quickly bitten by the bug, and with his selling done at night, he began spending days on the golf course, teaching himself by reading books. He took advice on his grip from the man who sold him his golf gloves, practiced on a baseball field, made films of his stroke and studied them. It took him nine years and three trips to the PGA qualifying school before he earned the right to join the tour, at 32, in 1975.
At the time, blacks were rare in professional golf, a sport that had a history of exclusion. A “Caucasian-only” clause was not rescinded by the PGA until 1961, and only a handful of black golfers — among them Charlie Sifford (who died in February), Lee Elder and Jim Dent — preceded Peete on the pro tour.
Actually, black golfers are less common today. The quarter black Tiger is the only black winner since Peete in 1986. Caddying and mowing fairways offered poor boys entry level jobs, and there was a shadowy career path in the Darwinian world of golf hustling. Lee Elder, for example, worked as the chauffeur of famous gambler Titanic Thompson as part of a long-running scam in which Thompson would fleece wealthy suckers by telling them “Hell, I can beat the two of you with my chauffeur as my partner.”
A white player of Peete’s generation, Larry Nelson, took up golf at 21 after getting back from a tour of infantry duty in Vietnam. He went on to win ten times, including three majors. Nelson qualified for the pro tour more quickly than Peete, only a half dozen years after taking up golf, but it still him took him over a decade before his first win.
Since then I’m not familiar with anybody having much pro success taking up golf after their teen years. There are a huge number of retired team sport athletes who would love to play on the over-50 pro golf tour, but almost none have made the transition.
Sports are getting more specialized, more dependent upon early concentrations. It’s clear from Jack Nicklaus’ autobiography that he subscribed to a philosophy of well-roundedness in sports that has faded in recent decades.
Thus it seems bizarre today, but when Nicklaus enrolled at Ohio State in 1959, he expected to walk on to the Buckeye basketball team to give him a sport to play when the golf courses were snowed under. After all, he had been a fine high school basketball player and had just set the Ohio schoolboy record for most consecutive free throws made (26). But then Nicklaus discovered just how good was the Ohio State basketball team, which won the NCAA champion the next spring with John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas, and a reserve named Bobby Knight, so he decided to finally concentrate on golf.
These days, however, most of the variety among pros’ backgrounds is in just how early they started. Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish superstar appears to have started hitting balls before he was three. The new American star Jordan Spieth was less precocious: he got interested in golf when his parents joined a country club when he was eight and he took up golf intensively the next summer at nine.
The 10,000 Hour rule really does apply in a negative sense to golf.
One possibility is that golf strategy has evolved to favor the most precocious at obsessing over golf.
The first famous American pro golfer, Walter Hagen, had a style optimized for winning bets: he was a careless driver, but remarkably good at recovery shots. I suspect he made a lot of money upping his bet on who would win the hole after he hit a bad drive. Golf is more fun to bet on when you bet on who will win each hole rather than on who will shoot the lowest score for the whole round or the whole four-day tournament.
Over time, golf strategy evolved in a more conservative direction aimed at optimizing scores over 72 hole tournaments. Ben Hogan’s spectacular run in the rigorous U.S. Open after WWII influenced Jack Nicklaus to play a quite cautious game. Nicklaus emerged out of an upper middle class background with an emphasis on winning tournaments rather than winning bets, so he de-emphasized spectacular shots even though he probably could have been a much longer driver than almost anybody else on tour if he hadn’t put his game under so much intellectual constraint.
The slightly android style of Nicklaus’s game was very intimidating to his contemporaries, but I suspect he would have been even more successful if he hadn’t fetishized cautiousness.
Peete, oddly enough, was kind of the ultimate evolution of the Hogan-Nicklaus strategy of minimizing trouble. Peete was a very short, very straight driver who tried to avoid getting in the rough or trees where he’d have to improvise a shot out of trouble. He preferred to have the ball sitting up in the middle of the fairway. Peete’s game was rather robotic, but now that I think of it, his strategy makes a lot of sense if you recall he didn’t have all those adolescent years to practice crazy shots out of trouble and develop as much natural feel for all the different shots you’d have to hit if you wander into the rough and trees.
It made Peete a rather fascinating figure during his prime in the first half of the 1980s because he had emerged from virtually an underclass background to become the most overachieving exponent of the cautious Calvinist style on the pro tour.
Late in the 20th Century, however, there emerged a new, more swashbuckling strategy of long, sometimes sloppy driving and spectacular extrications from bad drives.
Y axis is number of tour pros (out of roughly 125 regulars and 25-50 fringe players).
Looking at this graph from JamieOnSport, it’s easy to see the introduction of the Callaway Big Bertha driver in 1991, which caused a large jump in the percentage of pros hitting at least 70% of their fairways (blue line). Suddenly, over 75% of tour pros could come close to Peete’s benchmarks for accuracy.
After Tiger Woods laid waste to the tour in 2000, however, pros rapidly chose to trade accuracy for distance.
The Mickelson-Woods style — Flog It and Find It or Bomb and Gouge — was driven in part, by the addition of more wedges for escaping from trouble to the golfer’s bag. Phil Mickelson, for example, usually carries four wedges compared to Nicklaus’s two.
Another likelihood is that players are stronger than they used to be, due to weightlifting and/or steroids. This lets them generate more clubhead speed to get out of the rough consistently. I followed Peete around for a few holes at the 1985 U.S. Open in Detroit, where he had come in as one of the favorites because his accurate game seemed suited to the narrow fairways. But as a slight 40-something, he seemed to be having problems generating the clubhead speed to deal with the high U.S. Open rough. (I haven’t been to a pro tournament in a decade, but my impression from going to tournaments in the mid-2000s was that players were significantly bigger than in the 1970s and 1980s. At Shinnecock for the 2004 U.S. Open, I’d say about 2 out 3 players were, say, 6 foot or taller and 190 pounds or heavier (i.e., noticeably bigger than the average man), whereas a generation before the majority of golfers were in the 5’10″ and 170 pound range (i.e., roughly average).
And the Bomb and Gouge turn was driven in part by early childhood focus on golf that allowed players to get an immense amount of experience at all facets of the game when they were young and their central nervous systems were impressionable.
By the way, it appears that driving distances have been getting shorter the last couple of years. Whether that’s because the flog it and find it style had hit diminishing returns or because the PGA Tour introduced quiet drug testing a few years ago is unknown. Big hitter Dustin Johnson disappeared for about half a year, although the tour won’t say if he was suspended for performance-enhancing or recreational drugs, or if he just felt like taking a break.