Rich Beem right at home at site of 2002 triumph

By Doug FergusonAugust 11, 2009, 4:00 pm
2009 PGA ChampionshipCHASKA, Minn. ' An old friend called Hazeltine National member Patrick Hunt last week, saying hed be arriving for the PGA Championship on Friday night and wondering if he could stay at Hunts house.
 
No problem, Hunt said.
 
Hed even pick 2002 PGA champion Rich Beem up at the airport.
 
Hazeltine gave Beem an honorary membership after he won the last time the PGA was here, never thinking it would amount to more than a photo opportunity or two. Little did they know. The affable Beem considers himself a real member, making so many trips back over the last seven years hes got a half-dozen members in his phone book and is angling for his own locker when Hazeltine remodels this fall.
 
They just really embraced me, Beem said Tuesday. Its been fantastic, and Im very honored to be a member here, and look forward to coming back in years to come.
 
Its no surprise Beem has fond feelings for Hazeltine. This, after all, is the place where he won his first ' and, so far, only ' major.
 
A journeyman whod once made a living selling cell phones and car stereos, Beem had won at The International two weeks before coming to Hazeltine in 2002 and knew he was capable of playing well. But winning a major? And holding off Tiger Woods to do it? Well, even he didnt expect that.
 
Its not like I was building up to that. It was kind of something that, I dont want to say fell in my lap, but if were going to be honest here, it almost did, said Beem, who beat Woods by a stroke. I went out and I won it and I earned it. But to me I wasnt a major champion. I just went out and won another tournament. And all of a sudden, wait a second now; now its something different.
 
Beem hasnt won since Hazeltine, and his win here is probably part of the reason why. When guys like Padraig Harrington or Phil Mickelson won their first majors, they were already accustomed to the spotlight. Theyd piled up wins in other tournaments, contended in majors, and the question was more when theyd win than if.
 
For Beem, though, it was all new, and he couldnt help but be overwhelmed by it. He finished outside the top 125 for the third time in five years last year, and has only five top-10 finishes since 2006. Hes made 10 cuts and missed 10 this season, his best finish a tie for sixth in Mexico.
 
Everything happened so fast and so quickly and so unexpectedly, that how do you prepare for it all? he said. Its really tough, and so I handled some things exceptionally well and I handled some things not so well.
 
The one thing thats remained constant, though, is Beem himself.
 
The first time Beem came back here, he brought some buddies with him from El Paso, Texas, and they spent two days playing the Hazeltine members.
 
They absolutely slaughtered us, he said.
 
It was so much fun, though, that Beem invited the Minnesotans down to Texas a few months later.
 
Rich was booking the tee times, Rich was booking the hotel rooms, Hunt said.
 
He even helped out on a practical joke. He invited the Hazeltine members to his house, and they spent an hour or two taking pictures with his replica Wanamaker Trophy and reliving the 2002 championship. When it came time to head out to dinner, though, Hazeltine member Virgil Schneider discovered that his SUV had disappeared from Beems driveway.
 
His rented SUV. The one hed left the keys in.
 
I had already known his keys were in the car, and I had one of my buddies take it across the street and park it in the garage. He lost it, Beem said, laughing. I made him sweat for half an hour and I said, Dude, its across the street, in my buddys garage.
 
The clubs have played twice since then, and Beem estimates hes played Hazeltine about a dozen times since 2002. And while members have become accustomed to his presence, they develop a greater appreciation for him every time he returns.
 
Its rare for defending champions to make an appearance at media days ' most do it by teleconference now ' let alone someone who last won back when Woods list of majors was still in the single digits. Not only did Beem come back, he returned anytime Hazeltine asked.
 
He signed autographs earlier this week for a line of fans that only seemed to stretch to South Dakota. He taped an announcement for Minnesota Wild fans. He threw out the first pitch at a Twins game. Bounced it in the dirt, but thats not the point.
 
There are members who would say theyre disappointed Tiger didnt win, but we could not have a better champion than Rich Beem, said Hunt, a member of the executive committee in 2002 and again this year. Rich has never turned us down with a single request weve made.
 
No wonder fans followed him like he was the Pied Piper during Tuesdays practice round.
 
Woods is obviously the popular choice to win this weekend, but Beem might be the peoples choice.
 
For him to come back and prove it here would be such a special thing, Hunt said. But regardless, the same Rich that got to my house at 5 a.m. Saturday will be the same one that leaves on Sunday.
 
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