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Life of the Party Success already spoiled Rich Beem once, but his post-PGA celebration last week in El Paso showed how far he's come since then

Sept. 09, 2002
Sept. 09, 2002

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Sept. 9, 2002

Life of the Party Success already spoiled Rich Beem once, but his post-PGA celebration last week in El Paso showed how far he's come since then

In 1998 Rich Beem was a lowly assistant pro at El Paso Country
Club, and to this day he can quote the figure on what passed for
his biweekly paycheck: "Three hundred forty-seven dollars and
fifty cents," he says. "And don't forget the fifty cents." That
summer EPCC's favorite son, J.P. Hayes, won the PGA Tour's Buick
Classic, so the club threw a victory party in his honor. While a
couple of hundred swells toasted Hayes and his accomplishment,
Beem watched through the pro shop window, folding sweaters,
vacuuming, closing down the registers and daydreaming that maybe
someday he'd be the guest of honor at such a party.

This is an article from the Sept. 9, 2002 issue Original Layout

A year later that improbable dream came true. In the fall of
1998 Beem had successfully played his way through the
three-stage crucible of the PGA Tour's qualifying tournament,
and in January '99 he had embarked on his rookie season, a
logo-free, 28-year-old rube who had never even played an event
on the Nike tour, much less the PGA Tour. By May, Beem's rookie
year was going about as expected--miserably. He went into the
Kemper Open 202nd on the money list, having failed to make a cut
in the previous two months. But over four giddy, magical days he
went wire to wire for one of the most unlikely victories in Tour
history. Two weeks later Beem got his party at the club.

It started out as a low-key cookout, populated in large part by
his 35 sponsors, who had kicked in a total of $75,000 to cover
Beem's travel expenses in exchange for a cut of his winnings.
(The syndicate was amicably dissolved at the end of the season
when Beem paid back the original investment.) In the wee hours
of the morning Beem and a motley crew of his sodden buddies
wound up sloshing around the lake in front of the 18th green.

That kind of sloppy fun would hardly be an anomaly. In the wake
of the Kemper victory Beem partied like a rock star, and the
hangover lasted a year and a half, nearly driving him off the
Tour. Redeemed by the love of a good woman, Sara Waide, whom he
married last December, Beem finally got his act together on the
golf course, too, slowly raising the level of his game this year
until he exploded in August, a miraculous month during which he
collected two victories and a cool $1.8 million.

Last Thursday the EPCC hosted another party for Beem, five days
after his 32nd birthday and 11 days after his stunning victory in
the PGA Championship, in which he stared down Tiger Woods on the
back nine in the final round. The bash was doubly meaningful for
Beem, who two days earlier had cut a $10,000 check for his
initiation fee and become a member of the club, alongside the
prominent local citizens whose tee times he used to have to book.
On the big night El Paso police officers stood sentry at the club
gates, checking off names on a guest list that ran to 600 people.
The Golf Channel was on hand for a live, hourlong special. Beem
spent much of the night nursing sodas, chatting with his fellow
members and stealing kisses from Sara.

Eventually he was called up to a makeshift stage. After a
proclamation from Governor Rick Perry was read, it was time for
Beem to address the crowd. His first pronouncement? "Wow!"
Later, he sputtered, "All of this is just impossible."

Beem was not alone in his amazement. No recent victory has
turned the golf world upside down quite like Beem's breakthrough
at the PGA. The PGA Tour has lacked a lovable iconoclast ever
since John Daly's country charm was swallowed by his destructive
alcoholism in the early 1990s, but Beem's triumph--and his
unlikely story--instantly resonated with Joe Six Pack, for whom
Woods is too corporate, Phil Mickelson too slick, David Duval
too tortured and Davis Love too preppy. Virtually unknown a
month earlier, the clean-cut, self-deprecating Beem scored a
rare pop culture crossover for a golfer. A day after the PGA
win, David Letterman offered to the world the "Top Ten
Surprising Facts about Rich Beem." Number 2: "Even he has never
heard of him."

Beem doesn't need such good-natured barbs to remember where he
comes from. He spent last week hanging out at EPCC, where he
still greets every dishwasher and maintenance man by name,
warmly, and usually in Spanish. During some rare downtime Beem
drove 45 miles from El Paso to his old hometown, Las Cruces,
N.Mex., and spent half an hour wandering around the campus of
his alma mater, New Mexico State, looking for the offices of the
student newspaper, The Round Up, where he had agreed to do an
interview. When Beem finally found the sports department, no
reporters were there. Unfazed, he left a note with his home
number.

That common touch is Beem's most endearing trait. It is
refreshingly evident in the way he owns up to his struggles
after his 1999 Kemper victory. "Everyone was telling me it was a
great story, and I bought into that a little too much," he says.

His partying became the stuff of legend, and resulted in a DUI
charge at the 1999 British Open. (He spent the night in a
Scottish jail and later paid a fine.) At the end of the '99
season Beem left El Paso for the brighter lights of Scottsdale,
Ariz., where he was hoping to join a clique of Tour players that
then included Mickelson and Tom Lehman, among many others. Beem
never really fit in, and he moved back to El Paso within a year.
But he had carried his sense of displacement onto the golf
course that year and earned a mere $249,881 while finishing an
abysmal 146th on the money list.

That off-season Beem worked on tightening up his long, loose
swing, a major step for a player who possessed only a
rudimentary understanding of its mechanics. "He's a classic feel
player," says Cameron Doan, the former EPCC head pro who remains
Beem's swing coach. "Rich paints pictures on the golf course,
but he can't tell you what his fingers are doing on the brush."

Beem struggled with the changes for much of 2001, and by October
he was out of the top 125 on the money list and staring down the
gun barrel of a return trip to Q school. It wasn't until a clutch
finish at the Michelob Championship, which enabled Beem to tie
for seventh place, that he secured a spot on Tour for 2002. "I
was panicking, big-time," Beem says. "After almost losing my job,
I decided I would never put myself in that situation again."

Last off-season Beem redoubled his commitment to improving his
swing. He also got serious about his physical conditioning with
a regimen that includes Pilates, weights and cardio training.
Then, having discovered domestic tranquility with Sara, a
pharmaceutical sales rep who understands the complications of
life on the road, Beem finally found monogamy with a putter last
March. To that point Beem had tried dozens of different models,
but at the Genuity Championship in Miami he fell in love with an
obscure brand called the STX, which has a funky head that looks
like it was modeled after the Stealth bomber. Beem finished
fourth at the Genuity, collecting $225,600. In June, Beem nearly
won the Kemper Open, and in July he closed the Greater Milwaukee
Open with a 64, his low round of the year. That propelled him to
the International, where the modified Stableford system (instead
of conventional scoring, golfers win points for birdies and
eagles and lose them for bogeys and double bogeys) was perfectly
suited to Beem's gunslinger style. On Sunday he made seven
birdies and an eagle to storm to his second career victory.

The PGA Championship came two weeks later at Hazeltine Golf Club
in Chaska, Minn. Though Beem's freewheeling game was cresting,
only the most die-hard of El Pasoans could have expected him to
hold off Woods, who was one stroke behind Beem as they headed to
the back nine. But Beem has a competitive resolve that is
imprinted in his DNA. His father, Larry, grew up hustling at
various courses across the West, and he went on to become an
All-America at New Mexico State, where he now serves as coach
for the men's golf team. Rich grew up playing against his dad,
and their matches were less friendly competition than cutthroat
Freudian drama. Larry hazed his son mercilessly on the course,
trying to toughen him. Rich didn't beat his father for the first
time until he was in college. "It was a big deal," says Rich.

He encountered a similar competitive climate during his days in
El Paso, where every Wednesday and Friday a couple of dozen
members turn out for boozy money games. Beem was giving away so
many strokes that a day's losses would outstrip his paycheck if
he didn't shoot in the mid-60s. Says John Butterworth, a club
member and Beem's accountant, "We showed no compassion. There
were times when Rich lost 200 or 300 or 400 dollars. Maybe we'd
say, 'You can pay me later.' But he always had to pay."

At a mere 5'8" and 163 pounds Beem might look overmatched, but
he ranks 16th in driving distance, at 291.2 yards a pop, and he
owns the second-longest recorded drive of the year, a 393-yard
missile. Beem generates his power with perfect balance
throughout his swing, a huge shoulder turn and a go-for-broke
attitude. "The harder I swing, the farther and straighter it
goes," he says. Beem certainly has the game to regularly annoy
Woods. Does he have the confidence? Says Hayes, his El Paso
neighbor, "Rich now knows that he can beat Tiger head-to-head in
a major, and nobody else on Tour can say that."

If Beem is going to take up residence in the game's upper
echelon, his biggest challenge will be managing his newfound
celebrity. In the days following the PGA he chatted with
everyone from Connie Chung to Jim Rome to Matt Lauer, awakening
at 3:45 a.m. in Seattle to appear live on the Today show. Beem
was in town for the prestigious NEC Invitational, and with his
head still in the clouds, he opened with a lackluster 74. It
looked like he might revert to his unfocused form, but he ground
out three straight 67s to finish tied for sixth. "That was the
most impressive thing he's done lately," says Larry Beem. "That
showed a hell of a lot of pride and professionalism."

Rich credits Sara for his newfound maturity. Their typical
evening on the road is room service and a pay-per-view movie. "I
don't miss going to the bars and setting my hair on fire
whatsoever," Beem says. Of course the Beemer hasn't entirely
forgotten how to have a good time, and if ever an occasion
called for extra celebration, it was at his PGA bash in El Paso.
Long after the TV cameras had disappeared and most of the
graying membership had turned in, Beem and three or four dozen
of his friends could be found in the men's grill, throwing dice
and swilling adult beverages out of the Wanamaker Trophy. The
new and improved Rich Beem is still the life of the party. The
only difference now is that he's having just as much fun on the
golf course.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAREN KUEHN VICTORY TOUR Beem returned to his roots with a visit to his alma mater (right) and a birthday tribute from old friends.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAREN KUEHN [See caption above]THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAREN KUEHN BIG DAY Beem cradled a sign of the times (left), primped for TV (above) and, with Sara, thanked his loyal pals at the club.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK STICK SHIFT Beem's switch to the oddly shaped STX putter last March helped give him his magic touch on Hazeltine's greens.
Beem spent last week at El Paso Country Club, where he greets
every dishwasher and maintenance man by name, warmly, and
usually in Spanish.
"Rich now knows that he can beat Tiger head-to-head in a major,"
says J.P. Hayes, "and nobody else on Tour can say that."