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Michael Bamberger
August 26, 2002
Rich Beem came out of nowhere to stare down golf's dominant player and win the PGA, the most exciting major of the year
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August 26, 2002

Tiger Tamer

Rich Beem came out of nowhere to stare down golf's dominant player and win the PGA, the most exciting major of the year

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Turns out we've been looking for the wrong guy. We thought you had to be one of the golfing deities to beat Tiger Woods down the stretch in a major tournament, somebody with a pedigree, an entourage, a jet. An Ernie Els, a Phil Mickelson, a David Duval. As recently as Sunday afternoon we were eyeing Justin Leonard, the flinty little Texan, a known talent. He descended onto the practice tee at 1 p.m., in the luscious Minnesota sunshine, with his instructor, Butch Harmon, the swing coach Tiger made famous, striding beside him, both of them with their chests puffed out, looking like they owned the joint. At the time, they did: Leonard had a five-shot lead over Woods going into the last round of the PGA Championship, and he was three shots ahead of some guy, elfin Rich Beem, with highlights in his hair and, as Leonard's playing partner, an easy job on Sunday, that of keeping Leonard's scorecard.

By 6 p.m. Tiger Woods was in the scorer's trailer, the low man in at nine under par. His finish was pure, legendary Tiger: birdie on 15, birdie on 16, birdie on 17, birdie on 18, a closing 67. No other golfer has ever done stuff like that so often, not Jack Nicklaus, not Arnold Palmer, not even Leonard's hero, flinty little Texan Ben Hogan. At that moment, with Woods watching on a television in the trailer, Leonard was trudging up the 18th fairway, putting the finishing touches on a round of 77 that would leave him five shots behind Woods. Woods wasn't waiting to watch Leonard stagger home; he was hanging around the TV to watch Beem finish. And this, in Beem's words, is how he did it: "Took a deep breath and just whacked that sucker right down the middle, found out I had a two-shot lead, thinned an eight-iron onto the front edge and managed to three-jiggle it in from there."

Bogey on the last hole, 68 for the round, 10 under for the tournament, 278 for four days of hard work. In other words, on Sunday at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., 5'8", 153-pound Rich Beem, who will turn 32 on Saturday, did what nobody else has ever done anywhere: He beat Tiger Woods in a major championship by a shot. Woods had his first runner-up finish in one of the four ancient titles, the ones by which the great careers are measured. Maybe it will be his last, but not likely. Jack Nicklaus, whose record is Woods's grail, won 18 majors and was runner-up 19 times. Woods is now at eight and one. He lives for majors, and the next one is almost eight months away. Rich Beem took a piece of Tiger Woods on Sunday.

This was the best of the big events this year, and don't let anybody fool you, there are none left. The PGA of America has picked up its game over the past decade by choosing better courses, reducing to 25 the number of club pros in the event and making sure that virtually all of the top 100 golfers in the world are in the tournament. (This year there were 98.) No major is harder to win or more entertaining to watch. Last year David Toms had to stiff a pitch shot on the 72nd hole to beat Mickelson by a stroke. In 2000 Woods nipped journeyman Bob May by one in a playoff.

The good tournaments start with courses on which most of the field can be competitive. Hazeltine, once called a good farm ruined, was superb, with crazy-long par-5s, a drivable par-4 and wily greens.

Woods took a one-two punch last weekend at Hazeltine, the first delivered by Leonard in Saturday's howling winds. Woods played an incredible round of golf, an even-par 72, nearly four shots better than the average score that day. The conditions were nasty and Woods was loving it, hitting shots under the wind and through the wind, showing the golf ball and everybody else who was boss. When Woods plays a round like that, the other golfers in the field are supposed to genuflect and clear out of the way. But one guy failed to cooperate. Leonard—winner of the 1997 British Open, a low-ball hitter who grew up playing in the Texas wind—shot 69, the best televised round this year, considering the conditions. If you've done better, please write in.

Woods wobbled a bit on 18. After making a bogey on the last, he glanced at the scoreboard and saw he was trailing Leonard by five, three shots further off the lead than he was when the day started. He looked almost ill. Waiting a full minute to do a quickie interview with Peter Kostis of CBS, Woods stared off into some distant space where shots can be magically replayed. He was not blinking, not moving, not saying a word. It was as if he knew he'd need that dropped shot at 18 later.

Nobody was giving Beem much of a chance on Saturday night, partly because he has won only twice on Tour and was playing in just his fourth major, but mostly because he wasn't giving himself much of a chance. "If Justin keeps hitting the ball like he has, and he has his touch around the greens, he's going to be pretty unbeatable," Beem said. "I'm looking forward to watching it firsthand."

Oh, of course.

The next day Beem smashed his tee shot on the 1st hole, and he kept smashing tee shots, none more impressive than the driver he hit on 11, the uphill, 597-yard par-5. Beem and Leonard were in the last group; in front of them were Woods and his buddy Fred Funk—short but straight, 46 years old and the life of the Hazeltine party. Through 10 holes Beem was eight under for the tournament, Woods was seven under, Leonard was six under and Funk was five under. Woods made a par on the monster 11th. Beem came through minutes later, cranking out a 330-yard drive, then busting a strong seven-wood nearly 270 yards, leaving himself six feet for eagle, a putt he poured in to go to 10 under par.

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