Beem comes out of nowhere to break 70

By Ryan LavnerJuly 28, 2016, 11:52 pm

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.

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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.”

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Spieth takes familiar break ahead of Open defense

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – As his title chances seemed to be slipping away during the final round of last year’s Open Championship, Jordan Spieth’s caddie took a moment to remind him who he was.

Following a bogey at No. 13, Michael Greller referenced a recent vacation he’d taken to Mexico where he’d spent time with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan and why he deserved to be among that group of singular athletes.

Spieth, who won last year’s Open, decided to continue the tradition, spending time in Cabo again before this week’s championship.

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“I kind of went through the same schedule,” Spieth said on Monday at Carnoustie. “It was nice to have a little vacation.”

Spieth hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship; instead he attended the Special Olympics USA Games earlier this month in Seattle with his sister. It was Spieth’s first time back to the Pacific Northwest since he won the 2015 U.S. Open.

“I went out to Chambers Bay with [Greller],” Spieth said. “We kind of walked down the 18th hole. It was cool reliving those memories.”

But most of all Spieth said he needed a break after a particularly tough season.

“I had the itch to get back to it after a couple weeks of not really working,” he said. “It was nice to kind of have that itch to get back.”

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Harrington: Fiery Carnoustie evokes Hoylake in '06

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 3:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – One course came to mind when Padraig Harrington arrived on property and saw a firm, fast and yellow Carnoustie.

Hoylake in 2006.

That's when Tiger Woods avoided every bunker, bludgeoned the links with mid-irons and captured the last of his three Open titles.

So Harrington was asked: Given the similarity in firmness between Carnoustie and Hoylake, can Tiger stir the ghosts this week?

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“I really don’t know,” Harrington said Monday. “He’s good enough to win this championship, no doubt about it. I don’t think he could play golf like the way he did in 2006. Nobody else could have tried to play the golf course the way he did, and nobody else could have played the way he did. I suspect he couldn’t play that way now, either. But I don’t know if that’s the strategy this week, to lay up that far back.”

With three days until the start of this championship, that’s the biggest question mark for Harrington, the 2007 winner here. He doesn’t know what his strategy will be – but his game plan will need to be “fluid.” Do you attack the course with driver and try to fly the fairway bunkers? Or do you attempt to lay back with an iron, even though it’s difficult to control the amount of run-out on the baked-out fairways and bring the bunkers into play?

“The fairways at Hoylake are quite flat, even though they were very fast,” Harrington said. “There’s a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get hit the back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20 or 30 yards more than you think. So it’s not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying up.”

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How will players game-plan for Carnoustie?

By Rex HoggardJuly 16, 2018, 3:31 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Thomas took a familiar slash with his driver on the 18th tee on Monday at Carnoustie and watched anxiously as his golf ball bounced and bounded down the fairway.

Unlike the two previous editions of The Open, at what is widely considered the rota’s most demanding test, a particularly warm and dry summer has left Carnoustie a parched shade of yellow and players like Thomas searching for answers.

Under the best circumstances, Carnoustie is every bit the unforgiving participant. But this week promises to be something altogether different, with players already dumbfounded by how far the ball is chasing down fairways and over greens.

Brown is beautiful here at Royal Dark & Dusty.

But then it’s also proving to be something of a unique test.

Where most practice rounds at The Open are spent trying to figure out what lines are best off tees, this is more a study of lesser evils.

Tee shots, like at the par-4 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers. On his first attempt, Thomas hit 2-iron off the tee at No. 17. It cleared the Barry Burn and bounded down the middle of the fairway. Perfect, right? Not this year at Carnoustie, as Thomas’ tee shot kept rolling until it reached the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways, at a farther intersection.

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“A hole like 17 in this wind, the trick is getting a club that will carry [the burn],” said Thomas, who played 18 holes on Monday with Tiger Woods. “If that hole gets downwind you can have a hard time carrying the burn and keeping it short of the other burn. It’s pretty bizarre.”

The sixth hole can offer a similar dilemma, with players needing to carry their tee shots 275 yards to avoid a pair of pot bunkers down the right side of the fairway. Yet just 26 yards past those pitfalls looms a second set of bunkers. Even for the game’s best, trying to weave a fairway wood or long-iron into a 26-yard window can be challenging.

“Six is a really hard hole, it really just depends on how you want to play it. If you want to take everything on and have a chance of hitting an iron into a par 5, or just kind of lay back and play it as a three-shot hole,” Thomas shrugged.

It’s difficult to quantify precisely how short the 7,400-yard layout is playing. It’s not so far players are flying the ball in the air, particularly with relatively little wind in the forecast the rest of the week, so much as it is a question of how a particular shot will run out after it’s made contact with the firm turf.

As the field began to get their first taste of the bouncy fun, one of the earliest indications something was askew came on Sunday when Padraig Harrington, who won The Open the last time it was played at Carnoustie in 2007, announced to the social world that he’d hit into the burn on the 18th hole.

“This time it was the one at the green, 457 yards away,” the Irishman tweeted. “The fairways are a tad fast.”

Most players have already resigned themselves to a steady diet of mid-irons off tees this week in an attempt to at least partially control the amount of run-out each shot will have.

Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, hadn’t played a practice round prior to his media session, but could tell what’s in store just from his abbreviated range session on Monday. “Extremely baked out,” he said.

The conditions have already led Spieth and his caddie, Micheal Greller, to conjure up a tentative game plan.

“You might wear out your 5- and 4-irons off the tee instead of hitting 3- or 2-irons like you’re used to,” Greller told him.

But even that might not be the answer, as Tommy Fleetwood discovered on Sunday during a practice round. Fleetwood has a unique connection with Carnoustie having shot the course record (63) during last year’s Dunhill Links Championship.

The Englishman doesn’t expect his record to be in danger this week.

In fact, he explained the dramatically different conditions were evident on the third hole on Sunday.

“There’s holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the third. If you play that in the middle of September or October [when the Dunhill is played] and it’s green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge,” Fleetwood said. “Yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it’s actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot.”

The alternative to the iron game plan off the tee would be to simply hit driver, an option at least one long-hitter is considering this week if his practice round was any indication.

On Sunday, Jon Rahm played aggressively off each tee, taking the ubiquitous fairway bunkers out of play but at the same time tempting fate with each fairway ringed by fescue rough, which is relatively tame given the dry conditions. But even that option has consequences.

“It’s kind of strange where there’s not really a number that you know you’re going to be short,” said Fleetwood, who played his Sunday practice round with Rahm. “[Rahm] hit a drive on 15 that was like 400 yards. You just can’t account for that kind of stuff.”

Whatever tactic players choose, this Open Championship promises to be a much different test than what players have become accustomed to at Carnoustie.

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Fleetwood: Carnoustie course record won't help at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 16, 2018, 2:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Tommy Fleetwood holds the competitive course record at Carnoustie, but he’s skeptical that his past experience will help him at The Open.

Last fall, in the European Tour’s Dunhill Links Championship, Fleetwood birdied six of his last eight holes to card a bogey-free, 9-under 63, the lowest score ever at what is widely considered to be the most difficult course in the Open rota.

No one expects a repeat this week at Carnoustie – not with the conditions this brown, firm and fast.

“It’s a completely different course,” Fleetwood said Monday. “Shots that you’ve hit have literally no relevance for a lot of it.

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“It doesn’t do any harm to have played it for a few years. It doesn’t do any harm to have a course record, but it’s a completely different challenge to what we normally face.”

Fleetwood took a much-needed two-week break after the French Open, deciding to withdraw from last week’s Scottish Open for a bit more time in his own bed. (He said it was his last full week at home until mid-October.) Since his sparkling 63 to nearly steal the U.S. Open, the Englishman said that he’d “run out of steam” but now feels energized.  

“There’s not really a good reason why I couldn’t do it (this week),” he said. “It really doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past. The only thing they could do is build your confidence and give you examples of what you can do – examples that you can end up there, and you have the game to compete.”