One Of Their Own

August 10, 2009

Since his unlikely major win, Rich Beem has made the most of his honorary membership at Hazeltine

CHASKA, Minn. (AP) -- An old friend called Hazeltine National member Patrick Hunt last week, saying he'd be arriving for the PGA Championship on Friday night and wondering if he could stay at Hunt's house.

No problem, Hunt said.

He'd 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 he's 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. "It's been fantastic, and I'm very honored to be a member here, and look forward to coming back in years to come."

It's 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 who'd 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 didn't expect that.

"It's not like I was building up to that. It was kind of something that, I don't want to say fell in my lap, but if we're 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 wasn't a major champion. I just went out and won another tournament. And all of a sudden, wait a second now; now it's something different."

Beem hasn't 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. They'd piled up wins in other tournaments, contended in majors, and the question was more when they'd win than if.

For Beem, though, it was all new, and he couldn't 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. He's 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. "It's really tough, and so I handled some things exceptionally well and I handled some things not so well."

The one thing that's 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 Beem's driveway.

His rented SUV. The one he'd 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, it's across the street, in my buddy's garage."'

The clubs have played twice since then, and Beem estimates he's 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.

It's 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 that's not the point.

"There are members who would say they're disappointed Tiger didn't 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 we've made."

No wonder fans followed him like he was the Pied Piper during Tuesday's practice round.

Woods is obviously the popular choice to win this weekend, but Beem might be the people's 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."