Turns out we've been looking for the wrong guy. We thought you had
to be one of the golfing deities to beat Tiger Woods down the
stretch in a major tournament, somebody with a pedigree, an
entourage, a jet. An Ernie Els, a Phil Mickelson, a David Duval.
As recently as Sunday afternoon we were eyeing Justin Leonard,
the flinty little Texan, a known talent. He descended onto the
practice tee at 1 p.m., in the luscious Minnesota sunshine, with
his instructor, Butch Harmon, the swing coach Tiger made famous,
striding beside him, both of them with their chests puffed out,
looking like they owned the joint. At the time, they did: Leonard
had a five-shot lead over Woods going into the last round of the
PGA Championship, and he was three shots ahead of some guy, elfin
Rich Beem, with highlights in his hair and, as Leonard's playing
partner, an easy job on Sunday, that of keeping Leonard's
By 6 p.m. Tiger Woods was in the scorer's trailer, the low man in
at nine under par. His finish was pure, legendary Tiger: birdie
on 15, birdie on 16, birdie on 17, birdie on 18, a closing 67. No
other golfer has ever done stuff like that so often, not Jack
Nicklaus, not Arnold Palmer, not even Leonard's hero, flinty
little Texan Ben Hogan. At that moment, with Woods watching on a
television in the trailer, Leonard was trudging up the 18th
fairway, putting the finishing touches on a round of 77 that
would leave him five shots behind Woods. Woods wasn't waiting to
watch Leonard stagger home; he was hanging around the TV to watch
Beem finish. And this, in Beem's words, is how he did it: "Took a
deep breath and just whacked that sucker right down the middle,
found out I had a two-shot lead, thinned an eight-iron onto the
front edge and managed to three-jiggle it in from there."
Bogey on the last hole, 68 for the round, 10 under for the
tournament, 278 for four days of hard work. In other words, on
Sunday at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.,
5'8", 153-pound Rich Beem, who will turn 32 on Saturday, did what
nobody else has ever done anywhere: He beat Tiger Woods in a
major championship by a shot. Woods had his first runner-up
finish in one of the four ancient titles, the ones by which the
great careers are measured. Maybe it will be his last, but not
likely. Jack Nicklaus, whose record is Woods's grail, won 18
majors and was runner-up 19 times. Woods is now at eight and one.
He lives for majors, and the next one is almost eight months
away. Rich Beem took a piece of Tiger Woods on Sunday.
This was the best of the big events this year, and don't let
anybody fool you, there are none left. The PGA of America has
picked up its game over the past decade by choosing better
courses, reducing to 25 the number of club pros in the event and
making sure that virtually all of the top 100 golfers in the
world are in the tournament. (This year there were 98.) No major
is harder to win or more entertaining to watch. Last year David
Toms had to stiff a pitch shot on the 72nd hole to beat Mickelson
by a stroke. In 2000 Woods nipped journeyman Bob May by one in a
The good tournaments start with courses on which most of the
field can be competitive. Hazeltine, once called a good farm
ruined, was superb, with crazy-long par-5s, a drivable par-4 and
Woods took a one-two punch last weekend at Hazeltine, the first
delivered by Leonard in Saturday's howling winds. Woods played an
incredible round of golf, an even-par 72, nearly four shots
better than the average score that day. The conditions were nasty
and Woods was loving it, hitting shots under the wind and through
the wind, showing the golf ball and everybody else who was boss.
When Woods plays a round like that, the other golfers in the
field are supposed to genuflect and clear out of the way. But one
guy failed to cooperate. Leonard--winner of the 1997 British Open,
a low-ball hitter who grew up playing in the Texas wind--shot 69,
the best televised round this year, considering the conditions.
If you've done better, please write in.
Woods wobbled a bit on 18. After making a bogey on the last, he
glanced at the scoreboard and saw he was trailing Leonard by
five, three shots further off the lead than he was when the day
started. He looked almost ill. Waiting a full minute to do a
quickie interview with Peter Kostis of CBS, Woods stared off into
some distant space where shots can be magically replayed. He was
not blinking, not moving, not saying a word. It was as if he knew
he'd need that dropped shot at 18 later.
Nobody was giving Beem much of a chance on Saturday night, partly
because he has won only twice on Tour and was playing in just his
fourth major, but mostly because he wasn't giving himself much of
a chance. "If Justin keeps hitting the ball like he has, and he
has his touch around the greens, he's going to be pretty
unbeatable," Beem said. "I'm looking forward to watching it
Oh, of course.
The next day Beem smashed his tee shot on the 1st hole, and he
kept smashing tee shots, none more impressive than the driver he
hit on 11, the uphill, 597-yard par-5. Beem and Leonard were in
the last group; in front of them were Woods and his buddy Fred
Funk--short but straight, 46 years old and the life of the
Hazeltine party. Through 10 holes Beem was eight under for the
tournament, Woods was seven under, Leonard was six under and
Funk was five under. Woods made a par on the monster 11th. Beem
came through minutes later, cranking out a 330-yard drive, then
busting a strong seven-wood nearly 270 yards, leaving himself
six feet for eagle, a putt he poured in to go to 10 under par.
Woods heard the roar while making par on 12. He knew what the
sound meant: Suddenly, he was trailing by three. Leonard had
wilted under his gaze, but Beem was not cooperating. Standing on
the 13th green, lining up a 15-foot birdie putt, Woods showed a
side of himself that we hadn't seen. He said later he couldn't
decide on the speed of the putt. It was more than that. His eyes
were practically bulging out of his head, which perhaps was
preoccupied with Rich Beem. Woods three-putted 13 and made a
bogey on the short 14th, too, missing the fairway on his tee
shot with a four-iron. Then on 15 Woods became his regular,
killer self again, playing the final four holes with relentless
gusto, unfathomable skill and with a level of intense desire
that no game deserves. As he barked orders to his airborne tee
shot on the par-3 17th, his words were guttural, primal, fierce.
The ball finished 10 feet from the hole. Four closing birdies.
They just came too late.
Beem, who crashed in a 35-foot birdie putt on 16 that gave him
the cushion he so desperately needed on 18, is one of the great
pieces of work on the Tour, maybe about the only one left.
Playing the 1999 Hawaiian Open as a Tour rookie, he bought hot
dogs for lunch from a tent on the course, unaware of the free
food for players in the clubhouse. Later that year he arrived at
the Kemper Open, outside Washington, D.C., ranked 202nd on the
money list, and won. Only four years earlier the '93 graduate of
New Mexico State had been out of golf, working at Magnolia Hi-Fi
in Seattle, earning $7 an hour--"plus commission," he always
notes--selling stereos. He earned $990,000 on Sunday, two weeks
after collecting $810,000 for winning the International, outside
Denver. This week he returns to Seattle, to play in a World Golf
Championship event (first-place prize: $1 million) and to visit
his old buds at Magnolia Hi-Fi.
When he left Seattle in 1996, he was broke, a failed golfer, a
bachelor who drank too much, a blues song waiting to be written.
He still loves a party and to sip adult refreshments, but now he
has a wife, Sara, and a house equipped with a home theater and
killer sound system in his hometown of El Paso. There's music in
the man. You can see it in the crashing rhythm of his driver. You
can see it the way he bops down the fairway. After he holed his
winning putt on 18, he did a funky little boogie and then
shimmied over to the Wanamaker Trophy and gave the big jug a
kiss. It was as if the old KC and The Sunshine Band hit were
running through his head:
Do a little dance,
Make a little love,
Get down tonight,
Get down tonight.
Before long he was drinking a Jack Daniel's and Coke and praising
the wonders of Pepto-Bismol and Port-A-Potties, both of which
helped him get through his final round. "Maybe for Tiger this
gets old," he said, "but I'm going to soak this in forever."
But he didn't beat Woods with funky dance moves and self-effacing
quotes. He beat him because, deep down where it counts, he is
that flinty little Texan trying to beat the world. Every time
Larry Beem, the golf coach at New Mexico State, would play with
his son, he'd tell him, "Boy, you ain't s---, and you ain't gonna
be s---." And every time Rich Beem would try in vain to beat his
father, until one day he did. On Sunday he had the chance to beat
the best of them all. And he seized it.
I'm going to soak this in forever."