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In 1998 Rich Beem was a lowly assistant pro at El Paso Country Club, and to this day he can quote the figure on what passed for his biweekly paycheck: "Three hundred forty-seven dollars and fifty cents," he says. "And don't forget the fifty cents." That summer EPCC's favorite son, J.P. Hayes, won the PGA Tour's Buick Classic, so the club threw a victory party in his honor. While a couple of hundred swells toasted Hayes and his accomplishment, Beem watched through the pro shop window, folding sweaters, vacuuming, closing down the registers and daydreaming that maybe someday he'd be the guest of honor at such a party.
A year later that improbable dream came true. In the fall of 1998 Beem had successfully played his way through the three-stage crucible of the PGA Tour's qualifying tournament, and in January '99 he had embarked on his rookie season, a logo-free, 28-year-old rube who had never even played an event on the Nike tour, much less the PGA Tour. By May, Beem's rookie year was going about as expected—miserably. He went into the Kemper Open 202nd on the money list, having failed to make a cut in the previous two months. But over four giddy, magical days he went wire to wire for one of the most unlikely victories in Tour history. Two weeks later Beem got his party at the club.
It started out as a low-key cookout, populated in large part by his 35 sponsors, who had kicked in a total of $75,000 to cover Beem's travel expenses in exchange for a cut of his winnings. (The syndicate was amicably dissolved at the end of the season when Beem paid back the original investment.) In the wee hours of the morning Beem and a motley crew of his sodden buddies wound up sloshing around the lake in front of the 18th green.
That kind of sloppy fun would hardly be an anomaly. In the wake of the Kemper victory Beem partied like a rock star, and the hangover lasted a year and a half, nearly driving him off the Tour. Redeemed by the love of a good woman, Sara Waide, whom he married last December, Beem finally got his act together on the golf course, too, slowly raising the level of his game this year until he exploded in August, a miraculous month during which he collected two victories and a cool $1.8 million.
Last Thursday the EPCC hosted another party for Beem, five days after his 32nd birthday and 11 days after his stunning victory in the PGA Championship, in which he stared down Tiger Woods on the back nine in the final round. The bash was doubly meaningful for Beem, who two days earlier had cut a $10,000 check for his initiation fee and become a member of the club, alongside the prominent local citizens whose tee times he used to have to book. On the big night El Paso police officers stood sentry at the club gates, checking off names on a guest list that ran to 600 people. The Golf Channel was on hand for a live, hourlong special. Beem spent much of the night nursing sodas, chatting with his fellow members and stealing kisses from Sara.
Eventually he was called up to a makeshift stage. After a proclamation from Governor Rick Perry was read, it was time for Beem to address the crowd. His first pronouncement? "Wow!" Later, he sputtered, "All of this is just impossible."
Beem was not alone in his amazement. No recent victory has turned the golf world upside down quite like Beem's breakthrough at the PGA. The PGA Tour has lacked a lovable iconoclast ever since John Daly's country charm was swallowed by his destructive alcoholism in the early 1990s, but Beem's triumph—and his unlikely story—instantly resonated with Joe Six Pack, for whom Woods is too corporate, Phil Mickelson too slick, David Duval too tortured and Davis Love too preppy. Virtually unknown a month earlier, the clean-cut, self-deprecating Beem scored a rare pop culture crossover for a golfer. A day after the PGA win, David Letterman offered to the world the "Top Ten Surprising Facts about Rich Beem." Number 2: "Even he has never heard of him."
Beem doesn't need such good-natured barbs to remember where he comes from. He spent last week hanging out at EPCC, where he still greets every dishwasher and maintenance man by name, warmly, and usually in Spanish. During some rare downtime Beem drove 45 miles from El Paso to his old hometown, Las Cruces, N.Mex., and spent half an hour wandering around the campus of his alma mater, New Mexico State, looking for the offices of the student newspaper, The Round Up, where he had agreed to do an interview. When Beem finally found the sports department, no reporters were there. Unfazed, he left a note with his home number.
That common touch is Beem's most endearing trait. It is refreshingly evident in the way he owns up to his struggles after his 1999 Kemper victory. "Everyone was telling me it was a great story, and I bought into that a little too much," he says.
His partying became the stuff of legend, and resulted in a DUI charge at the 1999 British Open. (He spent the night in a Scottish jail and later paid a fine.) At the end of the '99 season Beem left El Paso for the brighter lights of Scottsdale, Ariz., where he was hoping to join a clique of Tour players that then included Mickelson and Tom Lehman, among many others. Beem never really fit in, and he moved back to El Paso within a year. But he had carried his sense of displacement onto the golf course that year and earned a mere $249,881 while finishing an abysmal 146th on the money list.