Since winning THE PLAYERS 35 years ago, Calvin Peete inspired many to embrace golf

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Calvin Peete was the first African American to win THE PLAYERS. He was 41 years old when he won in 1985 and his dramatic victory during the final round, which began in a three-way tie with Hale Irwin and D.A. Weibring, inspired fans for years to come.

Peete didn’t start playing until he was 23 years old, far older than most players who become pros. And he did so with a left arm that he couldn’t completely extend, due to a broken elbow that occurred during a childhood fall that was never set correctly.

His story and his winning record, which included 12 PGA TOUR wins overall, “inspired a whole generation to play golf,” Pepper Peete said of her husband Calvin, who died in 2015. “People told him, ‘I started watching the game of golf because of you.’ White people, black people—he inspired a whole different fan base for THE PLAYERS. He was just very inspirational.”

Calvin Peete was also instrumental in growing the game of golf in Northeast Florida through his involvement with The First Tee, founded in 1997 through a partnership among the PGA TOUR and other golf organizations that wanted to find a way to encourage more kids to play golf.

A nonprofit youth development organization that helps young people build character through the sport, Pepper Peete was formerly executive director of The First Tee of Jacksonville and is now manager of chapter relations at The First Tee headquarters at World Golf Village.

“When I first got involved in 2001, Calvin also got involved then,” Pepper said. “Calvin always had an interest in junior golf—gave clinics and support to organizations that introduced kids to the game.”

She didn’t know her husband when he won THE PLAYERS in 1985, she met him in 1987. But coming from a family of golfers, and being one herself, she remembers witnessing his memorable win on TV.

In the final round, he birdied his first two holes and then carded five birdies over the final 10 holes, including a tap-in-at Island Green No. 17 that opened a three-shot lead.

“There are different pin positions on the green every day,” and on Championship Sunday then, and now, “they put the pin in the right corner of the island, so you have to shoot over a sand trap,” Pepper said. “He hit the most amazing shot heard all around the world. The fans stood and cheered.”

One of the first things they teach new golfers “is keep your left arm straight, but he didn’t, he couldn’t,” she said.

When Calvin discovered golf, “it was pure will and faith and belief in himself—that ‘this is something I can do.’”

“Some people ask me—what did Calvin’s win mean to the game of golf? I think he inspired a whole generation to play golf.”

Photo of Pepper Peete provided by Pepper Peete

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