Beem's title brings celebrity

Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 2002

SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- Rich Beem is starting to get an idea of how life changes after winning a PGA Championship.

One of his first stops after the biggest victory of his career was to the Magnolia Hi-Fi store in Bellevue where he used to sell car stereos and cell phones. Calls poured in from across the country, media wanting to talk to anyone who used to work with Beem.

He decided to take one call himself.

''Magnolia Hi-Fi, this is Rich Beem, how can I help you?'' he said.

He is scheduled to appear on the ''Today'' show Wednesday morning.

''My wife absolutely loves Katie Couric, but I guess I'm on with Matt Lauer,'' he said with mock disappointment.

He also went window shopping for exotic cars Monday, and found it amusing that the salesman had no interest in helping someone dressed in shorts, beat-up sneakers, a fleece pullover and Atlanta Braves baseball cap. Never mind that the customer was the PGA champion, who had earned $1.8 million over the last two weeks.

''No one recognized me, which was totally fine,'' he said.

The golf course was another matter. Beem played his first practice round for the NEC Invitational at Sahalee Country Club on Tuesday and was practicing some long bunker shots, never one of his strengths.

''I actually skulled two or three over the green, and somebody snickered in the crowd, 'That guy won the PGA?'''

Welcome to his new world of going from a virtual unknown on the PGA Tour to the toast of the game, a former stereo salesman who toppled the great Tiger Woods.

If his life around him has changed, Beem doesn't look at himself any differently.

''I'm not going to wake up and fully expect to conquer the world of golf,'' he said. ''I'm a better player than I've ever been in my life, but it's just golf. It's not like I cured cancer. This is just a fun game, and I've been very good at it the last month.

''Some days you're the windshield, some days you're the bug,'' he said. ''And of late, I've been the windshield.''

He might not be the favorite when the $5 million World Golf Championship gets under way on Thursday.

Despite his first runner-up finish in a major, Woods remains the favorite in every tournament he plays.

This week, his focus is still on four.

He thought birdies on the final four holes at Hazeltine would be good enough to make up a six-stroke deficit and win the PGA Championship, although Beem rewrote the ending with a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 16.

Now, Woods will try to become the first player in 75 years to win the same tournament four years in a row. Walter Hagen won the PGA Championship form 1924-27 when it was a match-play format. Gene Sarazen won the Miami Open four times in a row, although it wasn't played one year.

The challenge facing Woods is the move to Sahalee from Firestone, a long, meat-and-potatoes course that suits his game perfectly. He defeated Jim Furyk in a seven-hole playoff last year, won by 11 strokes in his record-setting 2000 season and beat Phil Mickelson by one stroke in 1999, the first of six consecutive PGA Tour victories.

Woods tied for 10th in the '98 PGA Championship at Sahalee, his power limited by the sharp doglegs shaped by tree-lined fairway.

The other challenge is the depth of the field.

Along with changing venue, the NEC Invitational also overhauled its qualification system.

Instead of inviting only players from the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, it has been expanded to include the top 50 in the world ranking, along with winner of top-rated events on the PGA and European tours, and select events from Asian, South Africa and Japan.

The first three years, the field had 41, 37 and 39 players. Now it has 78 players from the six tours around the world.

Beem had already qualified by winning the International, although his victory Sunday at Hazeltine shot him up to No. 26 in the world ranking.

He believes he can win the $1 million prize this week, but just like last week, he has no expectations.

Still, there is more to Beem than his happy-go-lucky nature. Sure, he told reporters at Hazeltine that he didn't expect to win, and that he had nothing to lose. Deep down, Beem said he knew he had the game.

He simply had higher expectations of everyone else.

''I fully expected Tiger to make a charge early in the round,'' he said. ''I fully expected Justin (Leonard) to play better. Those things didn't materialize. Do I think I can win? Sure, if everything is going in the right direction for me.''

Everything is certainly going his way now.

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