RIP: Pete Brown, history-making golfer

Pete Brown, who died today in Augusta, Ga., at age 80, overcame polio as a teen to become a champion on the PGA Tour.

But that wasn’t hardest part of his becoming golf champion. Brown, born in Port Gibson and raised in Jackson, was a black man. He grew up at a time when precious few African Americans in Mississippi played golf.

He learned the game working as a caddy at the old Jackson Country Club (later Shady Oaks) and playing at Muny.

He was a soft-spoken man, quietly proud of his accomplishments. I covered him first in the mid-70s at the old Magnolia Classic (now the Sanderson Farms Championship) at the Hattiesburg Country Club. He walked the fairways with a noticeable limp, the result of his struggles with polio. We sat out one of the interminable rain delays that always seemed to beset the old Magnolia. He wasn’t playing well that particular year, but he could not have been more of a gentleman.

“Mr. Brown,” I called him.

“Pete,” he insisted.

His accomplishments included becoming the first African American to win on the PGA Tour. He did it twice, including the 1970 Andy Williams-San Diego Open where he beat the great Tony Jacklin in a playoff. Four months later, Jacklin would win the U.S. Open.

Don’t just take it from me on what a kind gentleman Pete Brown was.

Jackson golf professional Randy Watkins remembers a time when the phone rang at his house when he was 15 years old and had just won the national junior championship.

“It was Pete Brown, he was calling to congratulate me,” Watkins said. “I had never met him but he kept up with Mississippi golf and he told me he was so proud somebody from Jackson had won a national tournament.”

They stayed in touch through the years.

“I always called him Mr. Brown, but he insisted on Pete,” Watkins said, echoing my experience. “I said Mr. Brown, my mama would spank me if she heard me call you Pete. He said, ‘I’ll take care of your Mama. Call me Pete.’”

When Watkins earned his PGA Tour playing privileges, Brown no longer playing the regular tour but his good friend, Calvin Peete, was at the top of his game.

“Pete set up a practice round for me at the Milwaukee Open with Calvin,” Watkins said. “That was a big highlight for me. Calvin was as good a ball-striker as there was. And back then, a whole bunch of African-Americans from Jackson were caddying on the tour. Orlandus Scott was caddying for me. Golf Ball (Dolphus Hull) caddied for Calvin. It was like old home week out there.. We had a ball and Calvin really helped me with my game.”

Scott died years ago and Pete Brown came to Jackson for the funeral, which he attended with Watkins.

“Pete Brown was just a classy guy,” Watkins said. “I’ll count myself lucky for life that I knew him.”

Calvin Peete, who won 12 PGA titles, died earlier this week at age 71.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” Watkins said. “We lost two of golf’s greatest pioneers the same week. Calvin had more success on the tour than Pete, but Calvin worshipped the ground Pete walked on. I am just happy to have known both of them.”

In a statement today, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said: “Pete was a gentleman and a credit to the game. He will always be remembered for blazing a competitive trail when he became the first African-American to win on the PGA TOUR.  The fact that Pete went on to win a second tournament six years after his first, along with three runner-up finishes, showed what a truly fine player he was. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.”

In 356 career starts, Brown made 225 cuts. His first victory came in the 1964 Waco Turner Open in Burneyville, Okla. A former caddy from Port Gibson, who spent 11 months bedridden with polio, had made golf history.

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