Last week, Calvin Peete apologized. The straightest man in golf said it was unprofessional of him to quit after nine holes March 4 at the Inverrary Classic because he had been baited during his round.

Many on the PGA Tour think Peete has little for which to apologize; in fact, some think it might be the world that owes him a lifetime supply of sorries. The notion that he'd act unprofessionally is beyond the ken of Peete's fellow pros, many of whom consider him their model of decorum and restraint.

"Cal Peete is a gentleman," says Jack Nicklaus, who would know.

Perhaps only a person as rigorous in his private standards of conduct as Peete would feel bad for others, rather than himself, in such a situation. For 40 years, Peete has gotten the bad rub-of-the-green breaks, yet has always reacted by saying, "You're responsible for your life. I can overcome that."

"I panicked," Peete said earlier this week, still shaken by the incident. Peete explains that the man who followed him was "not a complete stranger" but someone he had known "years ago . . . like from a previous life." In a statement released by his attorney Friday, Peete's attorney, Steve Frank, said the man was a process-server. Something about a visitor falling, 10 years ago, on the porch of a property Peete had just bought.

Peete was particularly upset because, although he was not playing well, one of his partners--Payne Stewart--was tied for the tournament lead. According to one of Peete's closest friends, the golfer was worried that either he or his caddie might get in a fight with the person--a scene so far below Peete's rigid code of ramrod dignity that he would rather quit than risk the possibility.

The process-server's motive was "personal, not racial," according to Peete. In fact, Peete and his wife Christine say that the incident was merely a symptom of a much larger problem that has attacked Peete this season and deeply disturbed him: the approach of full-scale fame.

For six years, Peete was just another middle-of-the-pack pro, one of the tour's purest swingers and worst putters. Then, late last season, Peete suddenly turned one of those mystical corners in sport; he won four tournaments in four months and jumped to the top in every category--money ($318,470, fourth), victories (four, tied for first) and stroke average (70.33, second). Suddenly, Peete went from a heart-warming human-interest story to one of the half-dozen best golfers in the world.

"The guy who hassled Calvin was just the last straw. That incident came on top of a lot of little things building up and Calvin just bolted," says. "It took a long time, a couple of days, to get Cal calmed down. He's been living in a different kind of world recently and it's a tough adjustment."

"Calvin's a very, very private person," says his wife Christine. "He needs time to himself, time to practice. He can't stand schedules and appointments. When you make plans for Cal, he looks at you like you're trying to steal his life from him . . . But, now, it seems like everything is appointments and schedules and interviews. Everybody wants something from him.

"Don't our lives still belong to us?" asks Christine Peete, who has quit her job as a high school English and drama teacher in bucolic Belle Glade, Fla., to be her husband's secretary, manager and bodyguard of the soul. "I never knew what 'invasion of privacy' meant until the last few months . . .

"Calvin had to explain to me the other day, 'Honey, every time I get blue, that doesn't mean it has anything to do with you. It's just all this pressure, all this stuff.'

"Calvin didn't get into golf to be a celebrity. He wanted to be good at something and be proud of himself. For seven years (on the PGA Tour), I don't think Calvin ever said 'no' to anybody, because he really believes that, when you take something out of a sport, you have to put something back . . . But we didn't ask for all this. Do we have to take it?"

In the long run, that Inverrary heckler is probably the least of Peete's difficulties. Peete and his lawyer are currently seeking legal remedies to the situation as well as coordinating their plans with tour officials.

"We aren't ready to talk about this in detail yet," says Frank, "but we're going to make sure if this happens again, that it never happens again."

"I'm over it now. I've made myself get over it," Peete has said repeatedly this week. But Peete knows that just when he thought his life had finally reached the plateau he'd always sought, he's going to have to surmount a whole new set of obstacles. And, Lord knows, Calvin Peete's already climbed a lot of hills that were steep, even for a stepper.

Despite many retellings in the last five years, Peete's tale remains so individual that it retains its vivid authority.

Born one of 19 children in the tiny Florida hamlet of Pahokee, Peete fell out of a tree when he was 12 and crippled his left elbow; that permanently crooked, locked-in-place joint ended any future in games--he thought. Peete quit school in the eighth grade to help his family by becoming a field hand, a vegetable picker.

While still in his teens, he financed an old station wagon and became the smallest of businessmen, traveling the dirt roads in territory from south Florida to Rochester, N.Y., to sell clothes, watches and jewelry to itinerant farm workers. Because salesmanship was so alien to his quiet temperament, Peete came up with a gimmick to make himself memorable; he had his top-of-the-line product--a diamond chip--put in each of his front teeth.

For a decade, Peete was The Diamond Man, a migrant selling to migrants. He was proud to be "making it," clearing $250 in a good week. Peete even invested in an apartment house, though as landlord he also ended up as handyman, fixing toilets. He was improving his lot, but he was still searching for his fate.

Peete never hit a golf ball until he was 23, when buddies conned him into a game. He was hooked on "straight and long" from the first day; even when he couldn't break 100, his goal was "pro." For the next five years, Peete hit golf balls until his hands bled, staying out until the last recreation park lights in his town were turned off.

Despite being average size (5-10, 165 pounds) with skinny legs and that deformed elbow, Peete reached scratch in 18 months and became a pro at age 28. So much for Golf's Lesson No. 1: keep your left elbow straight.

At 32, Peete got past the PGA qualifying school (on his third try) and onto the tour. For three rabbit seasons, Peete's average annual winnings of $20,000 weren't even enough to cover tour expenses. Christine supported their family of four children with her teaching.

With his short, syrupy, unorthodox swing, Peete always had to go to the same teacher: "I go to Calvin Peete."

His conclusions took years to reach.

"Hit against a firm left side, but hit with the right side. That's the source of power."

"Mental discipline, muscle memory. Practice until you don't have to think."

"Simplicity is the answer. I only check three things--my timing, my balance and my (square) hand position at address," says Peete, who in '81 and '82 led the tour's stats in hitting fairways (82 percent) and greens in regulation (74 percent).

After a victory at the Milwaukee Open in '79, Peete reached a new plateau; for three years, he averaged $100,000 a season. Then, last summer, when it got hot enough for this man who says "I love to sweat, I feel like I'm doing some honest work," Peete skyrocketed.

"I've never been one to get ahead of myself. I do everything in stages. When I start forgetting that, my father (a shop steward in a sugar mill) reminds me," he says. "Your reach and your grasp should be the same. That's the way to be happy. Reach for the furthest thing you think you can get. Then, reach again . . . Sooner or later, the things that looked way beyond you are the next natural goal to reach . . . Sometimes you can't believe how much you have to go through to get to the end thing, but, one day, it's there."

Like winning a million dollars on tour, which Peete should do by early '84. Or, taking tutoring from his wife so that, last winter, he could pass the high school equivalency test and get his diploma.

"First, I learned to hit a golf ball, then I learned to control it . . . That took me 15 years. I've just gotten to the point where I'm comfortable. Until two years ago, I was still working on different swings," says Peete, who'll be 40 in July. "Now, I've started to learn how to score.

"I should have a long future 'cause I still have so much to learn. I never worked much on my putting or short game. I used to joke I was the worst putter on tour. But I think I just never had time to work on it enough 'til last year . . . I can't wait to play the Seniors Tour," he chuckles.

Peete, golf's master of deferred gratification, won't be eligible for the Seniors Tour until 1994.

Hand over hand, Peete has climbed to an ambiguous place--one which is both pinnacle and precipice. This mountaintop, which he only half imagined during the trek, is both familiar and alien.

Peete insists that he always visualized his accomplishments in advance. "You have to train the mind for success. When I first joined the tour, I didn't think I was as good as I was. Now, my mental has caught up with my physical," says Peete. "I'm as good a player as I think I am . . . If you can't win in your own dreams, forget it."

Off the course, Peete's difficulties are more precarious. Until a few months ago, he lived the simplest and most spartan of lives. "I'm a very low-key, conservative person," says Peete, who masks his feelings behind a Fu Manchu mustache, long sideburns and sunglasses which he often wears indoors. "I don't really bother to try to fit in anywhere . . . I'm a loner."

Peete is not antisocial, just unsocial. His family and friends mean everything to him; the rest of the world's opinion counts for little. Sometimes, when he comes home from the road and takes his family out to dinner, "he'll sit in the car outside until we're done," says his wife.

Peete's modus operandi is to offend no one and avoid controversy. This is not his way of pleasing the world, but of placating it, and thus keep it at the greatest possible distance from his essential life.

Peete's value system is almost entirely personal rather than social. He's attracted to individual good deeds, not collective good causes; for instance, two years ago Christine Peete had a talented but troubled girl in one of her classes. "Her parents didn't want her and Chris thought she could be an outstanding student if she had the right people to encourage her," says Peete, who thought the problem had a simple, direct solution. The Peetes adopted the girl as their foster child. "She's been living with us for about a year."

"A wise man doesn't concern himself with things he can't control," says Peete, who can sum up his entire theory of race relations in 13 words: "There are good people and bad people. Just try to determine the difference."

"Calvin's not experimental--a meat-and-potatoes man," his wife says. "I'm the opposite--outgoing, talk to anybody . . . Cal always tells me I overdress. I say, 'Calvin, this is the style.' He says, 'Why do you want to do what everybody else does? Be your own person.' So I just go around thinking, 'What am I going to do with this dress? Calvin doesn't like it, so why would I want to wear it?' "

Peete preaches to his teen-age children that "education is everything." Nonetheless, when fed a perfect straight line about his "other interests," he says simply and with no embarrassment, "I still think about nothing but golf."

"If people could peep through a hole and see us in private," says Christine Peete, "they'd say, 'No, that guy can't be Calvin Peete. He's having too much fun. Calvin Peete is dull.'

"That kind of thing makes me so mad," she says. "Now, all of a sudden, people want to get him a speech coach. Calvin may not be as refined as he could be, but he's himself. I have a degree in speech and drama (at Florida A&M) and I don't think he should change. He's not being difficult; he's being real. You have to remember who you are, and we all have to remind each other."

Being himself has become a war for Peete since he became a star. He's not encountering anything different than any other suddenly prominent athlete: a jillion interview requests, cameras and microphones in his face, fans wanting an autograph or a conversation, can't-resist chances for business deals, old friends calling in chits for appearances or favors.

"It's so easy to forget that the one important thing is his golf," says Christine.

Now, Peete is meeting parts of American success that he never foresaw in his dreams. For the moment, these unexpected and ungraspable phantoms--all the various kinds of heckling and hassling that superstars endure--seem like a nightmare to him. Ten days ago, they combined to make him dash off a golf course and drive across Florida to the sanctuary of his home here.

Once more, Calvin Peete must reach and grasp.