- Adrian Wojnarowski
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CHASKA, Minn. -- The worst of Rich Beem's act as El Paso Country Club assistant golf pro was watching him work the counter alone. This promised to turn into George Costanza hi-jinks, Beem's ear to the telephone, talking to a member about a tee time when someone else suddenly marched to the register, trying to score a bucket of range balls and maybe a little advice on his driver. This was always sure to send the sleepy, Texas club on crises alert.
"He was going to screw up and piss one of the two people off," Cameron Doan sighed. "Without fail."
Beem couldn't stand the country club crowd -- the members, the wives, the kids, the endless parade of people always wanting, well, always wanting him to do his job. There was forever some insulted club member marching into Doan's office, wondering what the club pro was going to do about his assistant. Doan created the job for his old family friend seven years ago, hiring Beem off the floor of a Seattle stereo and cell phone store, but four years ago told Beem he had best get on his way, get to Q-school to chase his true calling.
As Tiger Woods made his furious birdie binge over the final four holes Sunday at the PGA Championship, as the world waited for the failed club pro and electronics salesman to collapse at Hazeltine National, Doan knew the truth: Beem wasn't born to give lessons to bratty kids on a border town golf course, but he was the perfect candidate to give one to golf's greatest champion on one its grandest stages. Doan still could see Beem gambling on the greens at El Paso C.C., sweating a week's salary over a putt in those Friday afternoon games.
"Nobody's looked Tiger in the eyes and beat him," Doan said. "This is historic."
Until now, until the son of a lifelong member of the PGA, a pro who managed military golf courses from New Mexico to Panama to Berlin, honored his father's heritage. The PGA Championship was born of the legacy of lifers like Larry Beem, old pros mowing the grass, gathering the range balls, selling shirts in the pro shop. "He gave his whole life to golf," Rich said.
Through the years, the father wondered: Did Rich ever listen to a thing I told him? Did he understand why I wouldn't let him use Pings while learning the game, insisting he used an old set of unforgiving Hogans to teach the right habits? Did he ever study those big hooks and slices his old man hit just like Chi Chi?
"He had no attention span," Larry said. "He couldn't find his way to dinner."
Ask him if he was incredulous to see his son make his championship charge over the weekend and he just laughed. This was a good college golfer, a No. 3 man for New Mexico State's Aggies, a kid shooting 13-under par on the Dakota Satellite tour when the best players were 25-under par.
"I never thought I'd see him on tour -- much less in a major," Larry said from Las Cruces, where he now coaches New Mexico State's golf team. "He's anabolic right now. He's learning what the hell it is to make a living. He's so much different than five years ago, it's not even the same.
"Hell, he's been like Casey Martin trying to climb the Himalayas."
All his life, Rich never seemed to be listening. He never seemed to get it.
"And then something woke me up," Larry said. "We were playing golf one day just after he went on tour in 1999. We were both hitting tee shots. He hit an iron to the green and I asked, 'What did you hit?' ... 'A no hands eight,' he said, and then he smiled.
" 'Yeah,' he told me, 'you only thought I was never listening. I heard everything my dad ever said.' "
And it all tumbled out of him at the PGA, where he crushed those monster drives down the fairways and stayed cool on the putting green. Beem had promised to puke on No. 16 if he had a three stroke lead on Sunday, but he did something else: He dropped a 35-foot putt for birdie and listened to Hazeltine turn into a rock concert. As it turned out, his sad-sack routine of "I don't belong here," was just an act.
"He was fooling everyone," Doan said. "He's a gunslinger."
Beem wasn't scared; hell, he was gambling on house money. Did you see him Sunday? He beat Tiger by a stroke, the odds by a mile.
When you listened to Larry on the telephone on the eve of the final round, insisting his son desperately wanted to go down to the wire at the PGA with Woods, insisting he wanted to stare down a sport's savior, you couldn't be sure. Yet, it was true. From Mickelson to Garcia, Els to Leonard, going one-on-one with golf's Jordan was a major championship death wish. After all these years, all those unsold stereos and cell phones, all those angry country club members muttering his name, Rich Beem found his calling at Hazeltine National. Every club pro in America reported to the course feeling like a major champion on Monday morning. This is the legacy of Rich Beem now, the most improbable PGA Champion since a hillbilly from Arkansas named John Daly.
Here was the golfer with his old Magnolia Hi-Fi ID still stuffed in his wallet, slugging shot for shot with Woods, beating back sport's best finisher, beating back his own demons. At the end of the day, a failed golf pro was asked to talk to the golfers out there believing they had the game for the PGA Tour, the guts to get on tour, get to a major and take a long look into the cold, unforgiving eyes of Tiger Woods.
"Come play in a Friday game at El Paso Country Club," PGA Champion Rich Beem said. "If you don't get hammered, if you make some money, then you probably have a chance."
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.
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