Beem showed more longing than sense

Posted: Monday, August 19, 2002

Rich Beem keeps a bottle of antacid in his golf bag and his old salesman's I.D. card in his wallet.

He still needs the first to steel himself for the journey ahead each day. The second is to remind him where he's been.

On the eve of the final round of the PGA Championship, with only Justin Leonard ahead of him on the leaderboard and Tiger Woods lurking just behind, Beem said what a lot of other people were thinking: ''Guys like me are not supposed to contend in majors.''

But guys like him might be the only ones who can trade shots with Woods down the stretch of a major and wind up ahead at the end.

Guys with more longing than sense. Guys who still remember what it's like to make $7 an hour selling cell phones and car stereos. Guys who have to squander their talent before they begin even to miss it.

''He just trusted and believed in himself and he got the job done,'' Woods said. ''Sometimes it may be a benefit to be a little naive in a situation.''

Like Bob May at this event two years ago, Beem vs. Woods seemed like such an epic mismatch at first that anybody who turned on the TV Sunday must have wondered whether they had stumbled into a remake of ''Tin Cup.'' But nobody who watched long enough to see Beem play a few shots was tempted to change the channel.

Woods and Beem, playing a group behind, traded huge drives, iron shots at the flag and buried birdie putts within minutes of one another time and again.

Soon enough, the roars that erupted from every corner of Hazeltine National were clustered around the two holes where Woods and Beem took their fight. It was like somebody cranked up the volume and then pulled off the knob.

''Every hole, people were just screaming at the top of their lungs,'' Beem said. ''It was like a rock concert out there.''

But he also said there was one crucial difference -- besides the final result -- between his fight with Woods and May's.

''It wasn't really like we were slugging it out,'' Beem said. ''If the situation had been exactly like Tiger and Bob May, I may have felt a little different.''

In fact, Beem admitted he refused to look at the leaderboard until the 13th hole. He was afraid to get ahead of himself -- and for a very good reason.

Beem grew up as the son of an All-American golfer, sometimes coach and one-time facilities manager who moved the family often while tending to golf courses at military installations around the world. Everybody just assumed that Larry Beem's son would make a career out of golf -- especially since he mastered it playing mostly in his spare time.

Everybody but Rich Beem, that is.

He rebelled by drinking as a teenager and then dropped the game as a 20-something, tired of scuffling to get by on golf's minor league tours. He followed a girlfriend to Seattle and tried life as a salesman. But there was something about golf that kept pulling him back.

At first, Beem satisfied the longing by hitting balls off the balcony of his apartment over some buildings across the street and into Puget Sound. On Easter Sunday in 1996, he sat on the couch and watched Paul Stankowski, a friend and rival from his college days, win the BellSouth Classic.

That persuaded Beem to try the game one more time, but he still wasn't ready to take it seriously. After his second stint as an assistant club pro, he went through PGA Tour qualifying school and got his card.

But he was much more interested in the playing privileges life as a golf pro afforded him in bars and nightclubs. Beem hooked up with caddie Steve DuPlantis and their carousing became so legendary that it was chronicled in a book called ''Bud, Sweat and Tees.'

Incredibly, it wasn't the late nights that had Beem reaching for the antacid before he headed out onto the course every morning. It was nerves.

''When I sat up here yesterday,'' he said Sunday, with the trophy alongside him, ''I didn't know if I had what it took to win this. Obviously, I found out, and I'm actually still surprised at myself. I'm elated, because I learned where to put the pressure.

''My first two wins, I didn't know, because I was shaking like a leaf coming down the last two holes on both. It's not like I wasn't shaking here, but I was a lot more in control of my emotions than I've ever been under that sort of pressure.''

Between that first win -- at the 1999 Kemper Open -- and this one, Beem became a different guy. He eventually parted ways with DuPlantis, eased up on the nightlife and got married. More than anything, though, he learned how much golf meant to him and how much work was required to turn the potential he'd been given into results.

Just before he walked out of the interview room, someone asked Beem if now, with his future in the game assured, he planned to throw away his salesman's I.D.

''Not a chance. I'm going to keep that card forever, as a reminder that things could always be worse.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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