The will was there yesterday for Rich Beem, along with a caddie who pushed, prodded and cajoled him every step of the way to a dramatic one-shot victory in the Kemper Open, providing one of the most improbable and inspiring success stories in the recent history of the PGA Tour.
A 28-year-old tour rookie, who missed the cut in his last five events and whose best finish this season was a tie for 45th, birdied three of his first five holes yesterday at TPC at Avenel, then held on despite legs so wobbly he thought he wasn't going to make it up the hill at the 16th fairway.
He held a two-shot lead over two-time Kemper champion Bill Glasson and Australian Bradley Hughes, both in the clubhouse, when he stepped to the 18th tee and needed only a bogey to win the tournament and change the rest of his life. Beem got what he needed despite a drive into the deep rough and a nervous third-shot chip to about 20 feet from the hole.
Beem two-putted from there, tapping in a one-footer and raising both arms in ecstasy when the ball dropped into the cup. That last putt gave him a round of 1-under 70 and a four-day total of 10-under 274, with Glasson and Hughes sharing second place at 9-under 275.
"I was just trying to finish the last three holes," an exhausted Beem said after weathering the crushing pressure of a final round and the draining heat of a 94-degree day. "And 18, what can I say? I just tried to figure out a way to not shoot myself in the foot."
Hal Sutton, with a 65 and the week's best round, charged from well back in the pack to tie with David Toms (67) for fourth at 276. Beem's playing partner, Tommy Armour III, had a double bogey at the 16th hole after getting within two shots with an eagle at the 13th, and settled for a tie for sixth place with defending champion Stuart Appleby (68) at 277.
For Beem, a virtual unknown from El Paso, the victory was worth a champion's check of $450,000, as well as a $200,000 bonus from the tournament if he wins a major championship this year. Better yet, he got a full two-year PGA Tour exemption and an automatic spot in next year's season-opening Mercedes Championships in Hawaii.
From a historical perspective, Beem's victory doesn't come close to matching amateur and former caddie Francis Ouimet's stunning triumph in the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Nor was it on the same scale as John Daly's victory at the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick as the ninth and final alternate into the field. Those were major championships, after all.
Tour officials instead were comparing it to Fred Wadsworth prevailing in the 1986 Southern Open as a Monday qualifier, or Jim Benepe winning the 1988 Western Open after getting into the field on a sponsor's exemption. Beem is only the second rookie to win on tour this season, along with veteran international player Carlos Franco of Paraguay, and became the eighth player to win his first tour title at the Kemper.
On a day conventional wisdom favored an early fold by the affable Texan, Beem instead began aiming at pins all around the grounds. He admitted to serious nerves before starting play, and he went into a locker room bathroom stall to sneak a few swigs of Pepto-Bismol away from the prying eyes of his fellow competitors.
His jitters calmed considerably when he curled in a 35-foot birdie putt at the very first hole, and as he walked from the green to the second tee, a friend yelled out quite prophetically, "Richie Rich!" At the 239-yard third hole, he knocked in a twisting 12-footer for birdie after hitting the green for the first time all week. And he opened a four-shot advantage with a 25-foot birdie putt moving so swiftly it likely would have run clear off the green had it not banged into the back of the hole and dropped straight down at No. 5 to get him to 12 under.
His round may well have been saved at the 453-yard eighth hole. After driving into a fairway bunker, he hit a wedge only about 50 yards down the fairway, leaving him 132 yards to the flag. His third-shot wedge landed three feet from the hole, and he saved par with another perfectly struck putt.
By the time Beem got to the 13th tee, he still had a four-shot lead, but clearly the strain and the heat were getting to him. "I'm wiped out," he said as he poured himself a cup of water. Then he had a short conversation with his caddie, Steve Duplantis, saying, "Let's think about this [club selection off the tee]. You've been in this position more than I have. What do you think?"
"I told him I didn't think we ought to play this like a wimp," said Duplantis, Jim Furyk's caddie the last five years until he was let go last month. "I just told him what I told him all day -- give me a smooth swing all the way down, keep doing the right things, keep making the same thing and it's going to happen. He hit 3-wood at 13. Definitely not a wimp club."
And yet Beem then did two very wrong things. He pushed that 3-wood into high grass down the right side, leaving him no chance to reach the green in two shots at the 524-yard hole. Even worse, both Beem and Duplantis misjudged the distance, and Beem's 8-iron second shot flew all the way into the water to the left of the fairway.
Forced to take a drop, Beem then aimed his fourth shot to the heart of the green, made two putts from 20 feet and walked away with a bogey that left him at 11 under. That became a three-shot swing when Armour hit a huge drive, then placed his second shot within two feet of the cup for a virtual gimme eagle that left him at 9 under. But Beem never buckled down the stretch.
Instead, he made four straight pars, barely missing a 10-foot birdie putt at 17 that truly would have ended any suspense. Then he did exactly what Duplantis told him at the 18th, particularly when he lined up that 20-foot par putt knowing that a three-putt would mean a playoff with Hughes and Glasson.
"After 13, we learned our lesson," Duplantis said. "I told him we weren't going to hit any other shot without a 100 percent commitment to it. I told him to take his time, and don't even think about hitting this putt until you're absolutely certain about what you're doing. When he tapped it in at 18, yeah, there were some tears."
For Beem, the tears were joyful as he sought out his girlfriend, Amy Onick, standing behind the ropes in the huge gallery at the 18th, and almost squeezed the air out of her with a long hug before going to the tent to sign his scorecard.
"I can't tell you how frightened I was that this dream I was living was only going to last for one year," he said. "Steve [Duplantis] was in as a huge equation, a huge part of me winning. He's awesome."
As was "Richie" Rich Beem, the most improbable Kemper Open champion there ever was.
CAPTION: After watching putt fall on No. 18, Rich Beem celebrates wire-to-wire victory that included some tense moments down the stretch.
CAPTION: Rich Beem chips to the green on the 18th hole of final round. He then two-putted to secure his one-stroke victory.
CAPTION: Isbella River, left, Angelica Pena and Eddie Aquino await the final group, including eventual winner Rich Beem, at 18th hole on hot afternoon at TPC at Avenel.