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'.'
Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill
ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.
The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?
“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”
And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.
After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.
“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”
Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration
ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.
He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.
Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.
McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.
“I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”
A performance fit for a King
ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 40 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.
So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just captured the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the scrum, he was asked instead to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.
“Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”
But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud. With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.
“Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.
But the connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.
Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.
Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.
Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”
McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.
“I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.
And entertained, of course.
Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy said.
“And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’"
McIlroy chuckled at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”
McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.
During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.
But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, where he was admittedly searching.
“The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.
McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with former PGA Tour winner and putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.
“He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.
Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.
And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.
“The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”
All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career.
Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.
Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.
Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.
“I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”
Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.
“He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”
It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, closing with a bogey-free 64 and winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.
“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.
Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.
But after a turbulent 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.
There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.
A kiss for his wife, Erica.
A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.
The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.
“Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”
McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish
ORLANDO, Fla. – Fresh off a stirring victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy offered a pair of culinary factoids about two of the game’s biggest names.
McIlroy regretted not being able to shake Palmer’s hand behind the 18th green after capping a three-shot win with a Sunday 64, but with the trophy in hand he reflected back on a meal he shared with Palmer at Bay Hill back in 2015, the year before Palmer passed away.
“I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy said. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”
A few minutes later, McIlroy revealed that he is also a frequent diner at The Woods Jupiter, the South Florida restaurant launched by Tiger Woods. In fact, McIlroy explained that he goes to the restaurant every Wednesday with his parents – that is, when he’s not spanning the globe winning golf tournaments.
Having surveyed the menu a few times, he considers himself a fan.
“It’s good. He seems pretty hands-on with it,” McIlroy said. “Tuna wontons are good, the lamb lollipops are good. I recommend it.”