SCOTT BEEMAN doesn't remember much about the five days that preceded his return to the bottle, but he acknowledges they were probably what led to his fall. Trying to piece together those lost days, he pulls a calendar from the kitchen wall of his modest split-level house in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee and flips back to July 2002. It must have been on Sunday the 21st, he says, when he started taking calls from other parents whose kids had gotten sick. Tuesday the 23rd was the day he and Monica, his wife of 15 years, finally got their son Nils's body back from the coroner. The funeral was on Thursday the 25th, and on the way home came the impulsive stop at the liquor store, followed by an evening out by the pool trying to rinse everything away.
Beeman's memories of the sixth day before his relapse, though, remain all too vivid. A little before 5 a.m. on July 19, Beeman got out of bed and came downstairs to wake Nils for the early tee time they had scheduled in celebration of the boy's 15th birthday. Two or three steps down the hallway from the kitchen, Beeman turned and saw their only child lying dead in the bathroom, his shirtless torso propped against the toilet, his chin hanging over the rim. The water in the toilet bowl was murky with vomit. "I don't think I'll ever be able to forget that," says Beeman, who had been sober for nine months before Nils's death, after years of off-and-on drinking. "I still wake up in the middle of the night and see it like it's happening all over again."
Nils's death remained a mystery for weeks. On Aug. 6 Maricopa County health officials linked the illnesses of 51 other people to one common denominator: the water at Thunderbirds Golf Club. A week later the number had risen to 84, and the course's watercoolers were identified as the source of the problem. Tests by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on stool samples from nine of the infected golfers (but not Nils) revealed the presence of the Norwalk virus, which is typically passed through food or water contaminated by an infected person's fecal matter. In November the medical examiner's office finally determined that Nils's cause of death was asphyxia due to vomiting caused by the virus.
It matters little to Scott or Monica Beeman—in September, Monica filed for divorce and has since moved back to her native Minnesota—that their son's death created a small-scale panic among Phoenix golfers and helped push Thunderbirds Golf Club toward financial collapse. And they fail to appreciate the irony in the mission of the club, home to Phoenix's flagship First Tee program, which was to provide young golfers such as Nils with an inviting and inexpensive place to play.
Thunderbirds Golf Club dedicated itself to kids' golf under the joint ownership of the Thunderbirds, the civic organization that runs the Phoenix Open, and Luther Alkhaseh. Alkhaseh had purchased the course (then called Thunderbird, without the 5) and much of the land around it in 1980, a few months after he fled the revolution in Iran that deposed the shah and brought the imams to power.
In 1999 Alkhaseh joined forces with the Thunderbirds to renovate the course. In exchange for half ownership the Thunderbirds put up $6 million (about a third of the profits from the Phoenix Open from 1996 to 2001) of the $12.6 million makeover cost. The refurbished course, including the First Tee facility, opened on Oct. 29, 2001. At the grand opening Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour and the chairman of the World Golf Foundation, which funds the First Tee, said, "The First Tee of Phoenix at Thunderbirds Golf Club is a model of success for others to follow." Nothing, it turned out, could have been further from the truth.
For almost a year, the First Tee program did what it was designed to do—bring young people to the game—and was a huge success. The course complemented the program by hosting high school and junior tournaments, including the Junior Golf Association of Arizona's Thunderbird Classic on July 16-17.
Nils Beeman's participation in that tournament was part of his preparation for his sophomore season on the Mountain Pointe High team. He had made the 12-man varsity as a freshman but rarely played. Now, with only one of the previous year's five starters returning, he was about to get his chance. "He was pretty excited," says Tony Ramseyer, the team's coach. "He would have been competing for Number 2 on the team."
Nils's rival for that spot was Joey (J.P.) Paxton, his best friend. Nils and J.P. had spent the summer playing together. "Every day we'd call to wake each other up," says J.P. "It would be, like, four in the morning, and one of us would say, 'It's only 105 degrees out. Are you ready to go play?' "
On the course, often wearing their burgundy team polo shirts, they dreamed beyond their fledgling status. "Our goal was to be pros and play against each other," J.P. says. "We used to pretend we were in a really long playoff against each other at the PGA Championship."