SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – These days, Rich Beem is more at home in a media tent than a locker room. That’s why earlier this week, when he was chatting with Julius Mason, the PGA of America’s senior director of communications, he joked about what would happen if he somehow played well enough to warrant a post-round interview.
“Can I just interview myself and be done with it?” Beem asked.
They both got a good chuckle out of that, of course. The 2002 PGA champion has been a full-time commentator for Sky Sports since the beginning of 2015. He hasn’t shot in the 60s on the PGA Tour in more than four years. He hasn’t even played in a tournament in 50 weeks, since a forgettable 76-78 at Whistling Straits a year ago.
And yet late Thursday afternoon, there was Beem, standing in front of a white TV cart, to the left of Sky Sports reporter Sarah Stirk, answering questions about his 1-under 69 at this PGA Championship.
Beem had already agreed to dissect his round on camera no matter what he shot in the opening round.
“So I’m happy to get in there with a good number,” he said, “instead of having to describe all the bad stuff that could have happened out there.”
Yes, for one glorious day, at least, he beat Jordan Spieth (70).
He beat Phil Mickelson (71).
He beat Sergio Garcia (72) and Rory McIlroy (74) and Dustin Johnson (77).
“They’re probably scratching their heads as much as I am,” he said.
Even after all these years, Beem, 45, remains a crowd favorite. He’s one of the most improbable major winners in the sport’s long history, after outlasting Tiger Woods at Hazeltine in what was only his fourth career major appearance. He never won again, anywhere.
Beem played at least 20 events in all but one season from 1999-2011, each year scratching and clawing to finish inside the top 125 in earnings, but his starts became less frequent over the past few seasons.
When it became clear that he no longer had the ability to play the Tour for a living, Beem took the advice of several golf writers who suggested he find a spot in the commentary booth. He’s knowledgeable. He’s entertaining. And he’s brutally honest. His second career, it turns out, has been a rousing success.
As for his first love? His clubs practically collect dust nowadays.
Beem barely played the first few months of this year because of tendinitis in his right shoulder. He met with his wife’s uncle, one of the country’s leading orthopedic surgeons, and was put on a strength-training regimen. Recently, he had an injection that finally allowed him to play pain-free.
With the PGA circled on his calendar, as it is every year, Beem began hitting balls only a month ago, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which he worked for Sky Sports. Predictably, his short game was rusty, but he’d seen encouraging signs during a few rounds overseas, especially after a tip to widen his swing.
“For some odd reason,” he said, “it has started to click. … Maybe that’s why I played good. I forgot all the bad crap I was doing.”
But Beem was already dreading his return here to brawny Baltusrol, which he described as a “big-boy golf course where you’ve gotta wear your big-boy pants to play.” Though he shot 79-78 in 2005, in practice rounds last week he found the venue more forgiving, particularly off the tee.
A bizarre putter switch paid off, too.
After using a fancy Titleist Scotty Cameron model for years, Beem returned to his old Bulls Eye putter, with its sweet spot “the size of a gnat’s ass.” He played the ball off the toe, made an aggressive stroke and saw putts roll in with shocking consistency.
“If I actually play well enough this week,” he said, “I think I’m going to send Scotty Cameron back a good 15 to 20 years. Instead of everything coming off hotter, faster and prettier, he’s going to have to figure out how to come off deader and slower.”
Oh, but his scores were still ugly. Earlier this week, he played a windswept round at Liberty National, but his game was so poor that he started pounding Coors Lights on the 11th hole. “I just couldn’t handle it anymore,” he said.
But Thursday at Baltusrol, he felt a strange sense of calm as he began on the easier back nine. He birdied his first two holes, added another on 18 and turned in 34.
Sure, he made some mistakes, like the bogeys on the second and fifth holes, but he managed his game well and tacked on another birdie on the eighth to break 70.
“He played nicely, like he’s been playing all year long,” said Steve Stricker, who shot 69 in the same group. “I was impressed with the way he played.
“I know what it’s like when you don’t play for a while and you try to compete and things aren’t sharp. But he was pretty sharp. He managed his game nicely for a guy who hasn’t played at all.”
But he’s not just a guy who hasn’t played at all.
He’s a guy who hasn’t played well. In years.
“Oh God, I cannot remember the last time I shot under par in a tournament round,” Beem said. “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you.”
The answer: Not since the third round of the 2013 Dunhill Links.
Three years ago.
“I handled myself pretty good today,” he said, “but I have three more ro—.”
Here he stopped himself.
“Hopefully,” he continued, “I have three more rounds to go. Look at me – I’m already getting ahead of myself. Jesus.”
Yes, Friday is another day. He isn’t expecting a repeat, or maybe even anything remotely close. This was his first sub-70 score in a major in nine years.
“If nothing else,” he said, “I can say that I shot 69 at Baltusrol on Thursday, and if you guys ask me about tomorrow, well, I shot 69 yesterday!”
As Beem was wrapping up his surreal post-round interviews, his mind was already drifting to the rest of his evening: A quick shower, then a return to the course for his real job, the commentary work, the gig that still pays the bills.
“Good luck the rest of the way,” an interviewer said, extending his hand.
“Thank you,” Beem replied. “I’ll definitely need it.”