First Tee Fatality In Phoenix the shocking death of a young golfer led to divorce, a lawsuit and the demise of a club that, ironically, wanted to serve kids

February 03, 2003

Scott Beeman doesn't remember much about the five days that
preceded his return to the bottle, but he acknowledges they were
probably what led to his fall. Trying to piece together those
lost days, he pulls a calendar from the kitchen wall of his
modest split-level house in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee and
flips back to July 2002. It must have been on Sunday the 21st, he
says, when he started taking calls from other parents whose kids
had gotten sick. Tuesday the 23rd was the day he and Monica, his
wife of 15 years, finally got their son Nils's body back from the
coroner. The funeral was on Thursday the 25th, and on the way
home came the impulsive stop at the liquor store, followed by an
evening out by the pool trying to rinse everything away.

Beeman's memories of the sixth day before his relapse, though,
remain all too vivid. A little before 5 a.m. on July 19, Beeman
got out of bed and came downstairs to wake Nils for the early tee
time they had scheduled in celebration of the boy's 15th
birthday. Two or three steps down the hallway from the kitchen,
Beeman turned and saw their only child lying dead in the
bathroom, his shirtless torso propped against the toilet, his
chin hanging over the rim. The water in the toilet bowl was murky
with vomit. "I don't think I'll ever be able to forget that,"
says Beeman, who had been sober for nine months before Nils's
death, after years of off-and-on drinking. "I still wake up in
the middle of the night and see it like it's happening all over
again."

Nils's death remained a mystery for weeks. On Aug. 6 Maricopa
County health officials linked the illnesses of 51 other people
to one common denominator: the water at Thunderbirds Golf Club. A
week later the number had risen to 84, and the course's
watercoolers were identified as the source of the problem. Tests
by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on
stool samples from nine of the infected golfers (but not Nils)
revealed the presence of the Norwalk virus, which is typically
passed through food or water contaminated by an infected person's
fecal matter. In November the medical examiner's office finally
determined that Nils's cause of death was asphyxia due to
vomiting caused by the virus.

It matters little to Scott or Monica Beeman--in September, Monica
filed for divorce and has since moved back to her native
Minnesota--that their son's death created a small-scale panic
among Phoenix golfers and helped push Thunderbirds Golf Club
toward financial collapse. And they fail to appreciate the irony
in the mission of the club, home to Phoenix's flagship First Tee
program, which was to provide young golfers such as Nils with an
inviting and inexpensive place to play.

Thunderbirds Golf Club dedicated itself to kids' golf under the
joint ownership of the Thunderbirds, the civic organization that
runs the Phoenix Open, and Luther Alkhaseh. Alkhaseh had
purchased the course (then called Thunderbird, without the s) and
much of the land around it in 1980, a few months after he fled
the revolution in Iran that deposed the shah and brought the
imams to power.

In 1999 Alkhaseh joined forces with the Thunderbirds to renovate
the course. In exchange for half ownership the Thunderbirds put
up $6 million (about a third of the profits from the Phoenix Open
from 1996 to 2001) of the $12.6 million makeover cost. The
refurbished course, including the First Tee facility, opened on
Oct. 29, 2001. At the grand opening Tim Finchem, the commissioner
of the PGA Tour and the chairman of the World Golf Foundation,
which funds the First Tee, said, "The First Tee of Phoenix at
Thunderbirds Golf Club is a model of success for others to
follow." Nothing, it turned out, could have been further from the
truth.

For almost a year, the First Tee program did what it was designed
to do--bring young people to the game--and was a huge success.
The course complemented the program by hosting high school and
junior tournaments, including the Junior Golf Association of
Arizona's Thunderbird Classic on July 16--17.

Nils Beeman's participation in that tournament was part of his
preparation for his sophomore season on the Mountain Pointe High
team. He had made the 12man varsity as a freshman but rarely
played. Now, with only one of the previous year's five starters
returning, he was about to get his chance. "He was pretty
excited," says Tony Ramseyer, the team's coach. "He would have
been competing for Number 2 on the team."

Nils's rival for that spot was Joey (J.P.) Paxton, his best
friend. Nils and J.P. had spent the summer playing together.
"Every day we'd call to wake each other up," says J.P. "It would
be, like, four in the morning, and one of us would say, 'It's
only 105 degrees out. Are you ready to go play?'"

On the course, often wearing their burgundy team polo shirts,
they dreamed beyond their fledgling status. "Our goal was to be
pros and play against each other," J.P. says. "We used to pretend
we were in a really long playoff against each other at the PGA
Championship."

Nils's passion for golf was tempered by the usual teenage
distractions--"We'd download music and go to the mall to see
movies and try to talk to girls," says J.P.--and by a rich family
life. "Nils loved to travel," says Monica Beeman. Visiting the
Monterey Peninsula, the Beemans did not play Pebble Beach and
Spyglass Hill. They stuck to Del Monte and Pacific Grove, where
the greens fees are more reasonable. And there was always this
trade-off: Whenever Nils took his clubs on a trip, his parents
insisted that he also bring along a book or two. "He read a lot
of Dickens, mostly at Scott's instigation," Monica says.

Nils's pronounced self-confidence reflected his academic success.
Even as a freshman he took nothing but honors classes. He was
also a natural extrovert. To some of his peers the combination
was off-putting. On the first day of his freshman year at
Mountain Pointe, Nils stood in the doorway of the classroom for
honors English and welcomed every one of his classmates by
extending his hand and saying, "Hi, my name's Nils," like a
candidate for public office. Says Ramseyer, "I wouldn't say there
were kids who resented him, but some may have thought he was a
little cocky."

Like most kids in Phoenix, Nils had heard plenty about the need
to drink a lot of water during the blazing summers, and according
to witnesses, during the Thunderbird Classic he liberally availed
himself of water at the coolers provided by the course and at
others brought in by the Junior Golf Association of Arizona. Nils
showed no signs of illness after the first day of the tournament
or the next day, a Wednesday. On Thursday evening the family even
went to a Dairy Queen for Blizzards. When they got home, Scott
and Monica turned on the TV while Nils jumped into his
thrice-weekly workout on the weights.

The next morning Monica awoke first. She nudged Scott, who went
downstairs to wake Nils. Monica was startled by shouts and rushed
to the downstairs bathroom and joined Scott in attempting to
revive Nils. They were unsuccessful. When the paramedics arrived,
Monica wandered through the house in shock. "You want to go back
and keep on looking to see that he's not dead," she says,
recalling that awful morning. "I kept saying, 'It must be a
dream. I must still be asleep.'"

Nineteen days later area media reported that county health
officials believed that the illnesses were linked to Thunderbirds
Golf Club, and suddenly no golfer would go near the place. "We
had almost empty tee sheets for weeks," says Scott Henderson, the
president--or Big Chief, in the association's nomenclature--of
the Thunderbirds. "It had a real impact for about four months."

The bad publicity, though, only added to the course's problems.
Thunderbirds Golf Club was already in deep financial trouble,
mostly as a result of the owners' conflicting interests.

The course was supposed to be set up in such a way that the
Thunderbirds' half of the revenues would fund a nonprofit venture
benefiting the First Tee program. But for Alkhaseh (who declined
to be interviewed by SI) the course was always a for-profit
proposition. For that reason the IRS refused to grant nonprofit
status to the umbrella corporation, Thunderbird Golf LLC, under
which the club operated. As a consequence, the owners could not
collect the $2 million to $3 million promised by private donors
to help fund the First Tee. A month after Nils's death, the First
Tee facility--a nine-hole par3 course and a modest clubhouse--was
shut down.

Without the private donations, the 18hole course was in trouble.
Alkhaseh and the Thunderbirds had borrowed heavily to finance the
club's renovation, and though the 7,013-yard layout was
terrific--area pros Tom Lehman, Billy Mayfair and Howard Twitty
acted as design consultants--it came at too high a price. "We
built the course a lot nicer than it had to be," says Henderson.
The owners owed $6.6 million to Bank One Corporation, and in
September the Thunderbirds and Alkhaseh defaulted on their loan.
Last month the course was sold at auction to Phoenix businessmen
Ernie Garcia and Artie Moreno for $4.8 million. The First Tee
facility, owned solely by the Thunderbirds, was not part of the
sale, and Henderson says it will be reopened later this month
with profits from last week's Phoenix Open.

Still pending is the Beemans' $20 million wrongful-death suit
against the Thunderbirds, Alkhaseh and Western Golf Properties,
the company hired to manage the course. The Beemans know the suit
casts them in an unpleasant light and have found the proceedings
distasteful. "You wouldn't believe what it's like," says Scott.
"You sit down with an economist, and he tries to determine what
your son's life was worth."

Less than a year after Nils's death, the Beemans' mourning
process continues. Monica has coped well. "I don't have any
sadness about who Nils was," she says. "I only have good
memories." As for the dissolution of her marriage and how much it
had to do with Scott's relapse, she says only, "We had two
different ways of grieving, and they were not compatible."

For Scott the process has been more difficult. A few days after
he started drinking, he attempted suicide, overdosing on pills
prescribed by a psychiatrist. He has been sober since then, but
he requires encouragement from many sources--Alcoholics
Anonymous, family and a reading list dominated by titles such as
Talking to Heaven and Remembering with Love.

"I have to believe Nils can see what's going on," Scott says. "I
don't think that drinking myself to death is something he wants.
There's a book that says people stay around after they die--that
they show themselves in a gust of wind or a flicker in a
fluorescent light. When things like that happen, I remember him
and know that he would want me to get through this."

COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF SCOTT BEEMAN FAST LEARNER A straight-A student set to begin his sophomore year, Nils liked to tape swing thoughts to his team bag. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL BAD BUSINESS Golfers avoided Thunderbirds Golf Club after the watercoolers there were linked to the death of Nils, who is buried 20 miles away. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL IN MEMORY Ramseyer (top) and Paxton carry reminders of Nils, whose father, Scott (right), still struggles with the loss. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL TOUR HELP Henderson (right) says the First Tee program will be reopened with money from last week's Phoenix Open.

"We had almost empty tee sheets for weeks," says Henderson. "It
had a real impact for about four months."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)