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You can learn a lot about life from Rich Beem

Rich Beem is competing at the PGA Championship, 20 years after he won his only major title. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
7 min

TULSA — An event peddling $18 beers to those who will crave them might not seem much of a harbor for life’s curious truths, but here at the PGA Championship comes a grateful man with a bushel of them (truths, not beers). He’s 51, 20 years beyond his turn as a comet and emerging from the players’ locker room on a hot Tuesday. He knows, among other things, the eccentric value of naivete.

Way back at the 2002 PGA Championship near Minneapolis, Rich Beem became that occasional feel-good force that makes golf and humanity so mysterious. He won that event in his only top-10 finish among his 39 majors, and he opened up his soul to spill quotations such as, “Right now, I am so flabbergasted about this, you have no idea,” and, “I’ve always been easy to forget.”

His allies included a drink of choice: Pepto-Bismol, straight-up.

The player he edged by one shot — after Beem began the day in second place (three back) and that player began the day tied for fourth (five back) — was a 26-year-old sage with eight major titles and some of the most symphonic golf yet seen. That player, Tiger Woods, had just produced one of his most staggering turns ever, birdieing the last four holes on a vindictive Hazeltine course dead set against such shenanigans.

“Sometimes,” Woods said of Beem, “it might be a little beneficial to be a little naive in a situation.”

It wasn’t a slight.

It was a curious truth.

“Absolutely,” Beem says.

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Continuing: “Sometimes, some of the guys that didn’t win majors, I think that might have been their downfall — the fact that they got too wrapped up in the fact that they needed to do this, they needed to do that, to win, and this is going to happen, and that’s going to change my life. I’m not too sure that would have ever changed their life; I think their life would have been about the same, maybe a little different from their point of view. But beyond that, I think they probably put too much emphasis on it, because they weren’t naive enough, so to speak.”

He laughed right there.

“If you sat there and thought about all the things that could possibly happen, now you’re dreaming,” he said. “Now you’re dreaming when you should be focusing on playing and executing.”

Now he has walked the past 20 years as a major winner even if he doesn’t tend to bring it up. He has carried that major through 35 subsequent majors with 22 missed cuts and a best finish of 15th (2003 Masters). Among the gobsmacking equations of golf, this undeniably excellent golfer has a major where none has gone to such stars as Lee Westwood (19 top-10s in majors), Rickie Fowler (12), Paul Casey (12), Matt Kuchar (12), Ian Poulter (eight), former No. 1 Luke Donald (eight) and a giant of the game, Colin Montgomerie (10 top-10s and five runner-up finishes, three in playoffs).

“You know,” Beem said at one point, “when Sergio [Garcia], before he won the [2017] Masters, claimed, ‘I don’t know if I have what it takes to win a major,’ every time he said that, I thought: ‘Well, you beat everybody on the planet before. You’ve won tournaments that everybody’s been playing in. Why do you think you have to do anything completely out-of-the-box special to win a major? You just have to beat everybody that’s playing there.’ But I just don’t understand why they would say that, and I guarantee Monty probably thought the same way: ‘Well, I have to do something special.’ No, you don’t. You’ve just got to just go out there and play your game and not think about winning.”

In the oddness of life, one wins by not thinking about winning.

In the oddness of golf, Beem won from a ranking of No. 73 as part of a cascade of the naive.

Ben Curtis then won the 2003 British Open from a ranking of No. 396 and began: “Oh, man. That’s about all I can say now.” Shaun Micheel won the PGA Championship later that year from No. 169 and said, “I really can’t believe that this happened to me.” Todd Hamilton won the 2004 British Open from No. 56 — he had won the Honda Classic that year — and said, “I think right now I’m more tired than I am excited.” Michael Campbell won the 2005 U.S. Open from No. 80 and said, “I’m still trying to fathom …”

Later, when everybody got back to Hazeltine, Y.E. Yang fended off Woods, won the 2009 PGA Championship and said, “You never know in life.”

Back then, a prevailing school of thought went that those players contended on a given day by not having contended much before, with psyches unscarred by the soaring omnipresence of Woods. Beem doesn’t disagree.

This El Pasoan graduate of New Mexico State, son of a golf coach, had quit the game and sold cellphones et al. at Magnolia Hi-Fi near Seattle. He had rejoined and turned up at the 1999 Kemper Open at TPC Avenel as a 28-year-old rookie coming off five straight missed cuts, had won and had told of having guzzled Pepto-Bismol in a locker-room stall beforehand. He had won the 2002 International in Colorado two weeks before Hazeltine. That helped.

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Then he got to Hazeltine, and, in another of the vagaries that make golf a 600-year-old puzzle, the course and his eye made fast friends. “And I was very excited: It was the first time I got to a golf course that I felt really comfortable on,” he said. He thought he could hit driver in places where others felt they could not. He got to 6 under par after a 66 on Friday, kept that score after Saturday, forecast he might “puke” Sunday and settled in with noise surrounding the leader (Justin Leonard) and Woods.

Then Leonard shot a 77, and Beem showed himself he could do something he didn’t know he could do. He finished his earnest interviews, and he sat in the caddie area with caddie Steve Duplantis and Beem’s wife, Sara, and Duplantis’s sister and maybe a few others, unbothered, with beers.

Then they put the clubs in the trunk and headed to the airport for Seattle and for the rest of life with Sunday, Aug. 18, 2002, beaming from the background.

“It’s been phenomenal,” he said. “It really has. I think that having that, having the moniker ‘major champion,’ you know, I, I don’t want to say get embarrassed by that at all, but it’s not a title that I would bestow on myself. It’s not like I walk up [and say], ‘I’m a major champion.’ I let everybody else do that.

“But I think it’s great to say that I have — I have won one. Especially the PGA Championship. My dad was a PGA member for 25 years, lifetime member, and I grew up around the game, since I was a little kid, and I knew what it took to be a really good golf professional. And I still do know what it takes to be a really good golf professional. Not a professional golfer but golf professional. And I think that what my dad did in the game was awesome. I think he left this game in a better place.”

His dad, Larry, former New Mexico State golf coach and New Mexico State hall of famer, died in September 2015, the family obituary pegging him as “age 6-over par” and “especially proud of the fact that his picture hangs in the Pan Am Center [at New Mexico State] over the mens restroom.” In that brimmed another truth Rich Beem has carried through the 20 years that followed the one day: the essentiality of humor.

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