That off-season Beem worked on tightening up his long, loose swing, a major step for a player who possessed only a rudimentary understanding of its mechanics. "He's a classic feel player," says Cameron Doan, the former EPCC head pro who remains Beem's swing coach. "Rich paints pictures on the golf course, but he can't tell you what his fingers are doing on the brush."
Beem struggled with the changes for much of 2001, and by October he was out of the top 125 on the money list and staring down the gun barrel of a return trip to Q school. It wasn't until a clutch finish at the Michelob Championship, which enabled Beem to tie for seventh place, that he secured a spot on Tour for 2002. "I was panicking, big-time," Beem says. "After almost losing my job, I decided I would never put myself in that situation again."
Last off-season Beem redoubled his commitment to improving his swing. He also got serious about his physical conditioning with a regimen that includes Pilates, weights and cardio training. Then, having discovered domestic tranquility with Sara, a pharmaceutical sales rep who understands the complications of life on the road, Beem finally found monogamy with a putter last March. To that point Beem had tried dozens of different models, but at the Genuity Championship in Miami he fell in love with an obscure brand called the STX, which has a funky head that looks like it was modeled after the Stealth bomber. Beem finished fourth at the Genuity, collecting $225,600. In June, Beem nearly won the Kemper Open, and in July he closed the Greater Milwaukee Open with a 64, his low round of the year. That propelled him to the International, where the modified Stableford system (instead of conventional scoring, golfers win points for birdies and eagles and lose them for bogeys and double bogeys) was perfectly suited to Beem's gunslinger style. On Sunday he made seven birdies and an eagle to storm to his second career victory.
The PGA Championship came two weeks later at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. Though Beem's freewheeling game was cresting, only the most die-hard of El Pasoans could have expected him to hold off Woods, who was one stroke behind Beem as they headed to the back nine. But Beem has a competitive resolve that is imprinted in his DNA. His father, Larry, grew up hustling at various courses across the West, and he went on to become an All-America at New Mexico State, where he now serves as coach for the men's golf team. Rich grew up playing against his dad, and their matches were less friendly competition than cutthroat Freudian drama. Larry hazed his son mercilessly on the course, trying to toughen him. Rich didn't beat his father for the first time until he was in college. "It was a big deal," says Rich.
He encountered a similar competitive climate during his days in El Paso, where every Wednesday and Friday a couple of dozen members turn out for boozy money games. Beem was giving away so many strokes that a day's losses would outstrip his paycheck if he didn't shoot in the mid-60s. Says John Butterworth, a club member and Beem's accountant, "We showed no compassion. There were times when Rich lost 200 or 300 or 400 dollars. Maybe we'd say, 'You can pay me later.' But he always had to pay."
At a mere 5'8" and 163 pounds Beem might look overmatched, but he ranks 16th in driving distance, at 291.2 yards a pop, and he owns the second-longest recorded drive of the year, a 393-yard missile. Beem generates his power with perfect balance throughout his swing, a huge shoulder turn and a go-for-broke attitude. "The harder I swing, the farther and straighter it goes," he says. Beem certainly has the game to regularly annoy Woods. Does he have the confidence? Says Hayes, his El Paso neighbor, "Rich now knows that he can beat Tiger head-to-head in a major, and nobody else on Tour can say that."
If Beem is going to take up residence in the game's upper echelon, his biggest challenge will be managing his newfound celebrity. In the days following the PGA he chatted with everyone from Connie Chung to Jim Rome to Matt Lauer, awakening at 3:45 a.m. in Seattle to appear live on the Today show. Beem was in town for the prestigious NEC Invitational, and with his head still in the clouds, he opened with a lackluster 74. It looked like he might revert to his unfocused form, but he ground out three straight 67s to finish tied for sixth. "That was the most impressive thing he's done lately," says Larry Beem. "That showed a hell of a lot of pride and professionalism."
Rich credits Sara for his newfound maturity. Their typical evening on the road is room service and a pay-per-view movie. "I don't miss going to the bars and setting my hair on fire whatsoever," Beem says. Of course the Beemer hasn't entirely forgotten how to have a good time, and if ever an occasion called for extra celebration, it was at his PGA bash in El Paso. Long after the TV cameras had disappeared and most of the graying membership had turned in, Beem and three or four dozen of his friends could be found in the men's grill, throwing dice and swilling adult beverages out of the Wanamaker Trophy. The new and improved Rich Beem is still the life of the party. The only difference now is that he's having just as much fun on the golf course.