One Night In El Paso
El Paso Country Club is like that. They threw a party for Rich Beem last Thursday, just as they had done in the late '60s when another member, Lee Trevino, won the 1968 U.S. Open, and in 1998 when J.P. Hayes won The Buick Classic. Pretty strong list of graduates at El Paso C.C.
El Paso is the western-most spot in Texas, bordering New Mexico and Mexico. There's something sort of loopy about a place where if you make a wrong turn you could be in a different country. It's a diverse and tolerant culture, reflected in the faces of even the members of El Paso Country Club.
As Beemer sat on our Golf Talk Live set, a funky, tattooed female photographer from Sports Illustrated snapping shot after shot, he welcomed an endless stream of well wishers.
'Izzyyyyy!' Beem shouted. A spry, 80-year-old man with a big smile reached out to embrace the PGA Champion. It was Izzy Kahn, a longstanding member of El Paso C.C. I was instantly reminded of an Izzy that I knew at a club where I played as a youth. Izzy Heiklen, may he rest peacefully, taught me how to spot putt late one night with the lights of his automobile illuminating the practice green.
Izzy always said that he'd played enough golf in his life to walk to the moon and back. And even when his body would no longer allow him to play, he'd still come to the club every single day and sit in the same exact chair in the men's grill and order the same exact thing every single day - a bagel with cream cheese and marmalade with a cup of coffee. I rarely started a round unless I'd first said hello to Izzy.
Our show was starting in minutes so I didn't get Izzy Kahn's full story. But based on the warmth Beemer showed for the old timer, I'd bet it's a good one.
Just behind us, the young men and women of the University of Texas at El Paso golf team were soaking up the atmosphere on the putting green, at most any club the perfect gathering post. I had putted a few holes with them, each with an eye on a career as a touring pro, no doubt buoyed by the grand exploits of the guy they'd frequently played with during their practice rounds at El Paso C.C.
The Franklin Mountains framed the scene quite majestically, a cloudless, warm, late summer day in the Southwest.
A couple hundred people milled about excitedly just behind our set. Imagine if someone associated with your club had returned with one of the most coveted trophies in golf, returned as an unlikely but perfect hero, having out-dueled one of the two greatest golfers that ever lived. You'd want to celebrate that, wouldn't you?
During the show, several guests good-naturedly pointed out that Beemer was really not a very good assistant professional at El Paso C.C. in the mid to late '90s. Cameron Doan, Rich's current swing coach and now the head pro at a Dallas area club which is home to the likes of Lanny Wadkins, David Graham and Lee Trevino - Preston Trail - remembers that when he was head pro at El Paso C.C., he advised Rich to find another line of work, preferably using his talents as a player. Bill Eschenbrenner, whose understated aura and handsome, lived in look make him something of a Clint Eastwood of club pros, preceded Doan at El Paso C.C. and is now the beloved pro emeritus. He pointed out that Rich simply didn't have the temperament to spew the kind of niceties that all club professionals must to its membership. Beemer denied none of this, and laughed along as the memories were recounted lovingly.
After the show, people ate burgers and dogs and slaw and chips, enjoyed drinks while watching a replay of the magical moments from Minnesota on a big screen TV adjacent to the putting green. Beemer signed autographs for anyone who requested, and there were lots.
As the evening moved along, a gang of people retreated to the card room. There was a group behind the bar, and several more at the different tables around the room. It was pleasantly noisy, the way it gets when revelers gather steam and gather together.
At one table, a dice game called chiho had not so much broken out as it had erupted. It sounded like a fired-up crap table in Vegas, and no doubt wagers were won and lost.
All the while, I'd bumped into so many friends and acquaintances of the star of the show.
'What makes Beemer special,' said one 30-something guy, 'is that he has a great sense of occasion.'
Well put, I thought.
'He's got incredible instincts,' chimed another. Agreed.
'Think about this,' implored a 50ish man. 'Right now, if you were entered in a PGA Tour pro-am and were given a choice of any player you'd like to partner, you could make a strong case that Beemer would be near the top of the list, behind Tiger and maybe Mickelson. People really relate to Rich and like him.'
Another person felt strongly that Rich had changed for the better, that after he'd won Kemper in '99 he was possibly headed down a bumpy, partying path. Rich still enjoys a spirited time, he added, but now he's married to sweet Sara and aware that the skill he possesses should not be wasted.
My instinct told me that these people all knew Rich quite well. My instinct was only slightly skeptical when someone tried to convince me that they saw all of this coming. Achieving as Rich did on such a monumental and thrilling scale, I felt, would have been difficult to predict. But no matter, it had happened, and joyously so.
Beemer had come along at the perfect time, a tasty antidote to the clinical, disciplined and obviously ultra successful Tiger Woods. And that he came out of the kind of club environment that so many fans of golf understand made him more real. Beemer's one of us.
I fully understood that when late into the memorable night, the PGA champion stood up and announced above the din and clamor of the celebration, 'Taco Cabana! I'm buyin'.'
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