Rich Beem Overcame the Odds to Become PGA Champion
Twenty years ago was peak Tiger Woods. There was no way he wasn’t going to win the PGA Championship that year, right?
Turns out golf, as in life, is unpredictable. That’s not to say Rich Beem came out of nowhere to win that year’s PGA Championship – he was already a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, including just two weeks prior – but how could anyone top Tiger?
“This is unexpected,” Beem said with a laugh that fateful Sunday, after he won by one shot over Woods – who won five times that year, including two majors.
The victory for Beem came as Woods stormed to the finish line. After a bogey on the par-4 14th the No. 1 player in the world made birdies on each of his final four holes, including an exclamation point on 18.
“I gave it absolutely everything I have,” said Woods after falling just one shot short. “I told (caddy Steve Williams), ‘If we birdie in, we'll win the tournament, let's just suck it up and get it done.’
“You've got to birdie every hole. Take it one shot at a time, but you've just got to hit every shot the way you know you can. That is exactly what I did. I didn't miss a shot coming in.”
Beem started off the week with an even-par 72 but zipped up the leaderboard in the second round after a 6-under 66. He was in a five-way tie for the lead through 36 holes. He added another 72 on Saturday and came into the final group on Sunday three back of Justin Leonard.
Leonard struggled that Sunday and shot a 5-over 77. However, Beem, highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 11th, fired a 4-under 68 Sunday.
“He just went out there and played great today, shot 4-under. That's awfully impressive, to go out there and shoot a round like that, when he absolutely has to do it,” said Woods.
Beem’s background had been well documented heading into the week, as he was just a few years removed from selling cell phones and stereo systems. Despite his big victory at the PGA Championship, he said he wouldn’t be forgetting that time in his life any time soon.
“Don't ever forget where you came from and that's where I came from,” said Beem. “I came from a job that it served its purpose… I'm going to keep that (photo ID) card forever, just as a reminder it could always be worse, you could be working at Magnolia Hi-Fi, trying to get a one-dollar spiff on a one-dollar cell phone.”
Another part of Beem’s backstory that made for an even more emotional victory moment that faithful summer in 2002 is that his father, Larry, was a long-time PGA Professional.
Larry Beem passed away in 2015. He spent 40 years in the golf industry as a head pro and general manager before returning to his alma mater of New Mexico State as head coach in 1998. He retired in 2004. He and Rich Beem are the only father-son duo who have been inducted into the New Mexico State Hall of Fame.
“I remember when Davis (Love III) won at Winged Foot, it meant so much to him because his father was a PGA Professional. It's along those same lines. My father, he's been with the PGA for more than 25 years,” said Beem at the time. “Just loves the game of golf, still plays all the time, still comes over to my house, steals golf balls and putters and woods and irons and just loves the game of golf and has given his life to it. I just think that (the Wanamaker Trophy) is the neatest thing and… I can't wait to get home and show it off.”
Beem’s 2002 triumph at the PGA Championship was his final victory on the PGA Tour. Now 51, Beem tees it up when he can on PGA Tour Champions (he played eight times last year) but is more frequently heard on Sky Sports as an informative and funny analyst, doing more than 20 events for the network per year.
But while he hasn’t found the winner’s circle since his PGA Championship win, that matters little for Beem. He’ll always have his name etched on one of the most coveted trophies in golf.
“The trophy is the coolest thing,” said Beem in 2002. “I will always have one of these. And seeing these names on this trophy, unbelievable.”