June 25, 2007

A wild ride for the Beemer

Mother Nature must have been suffering from a stomach ulcer when it came to the majors this year. All four were interrupted and tortured by weather at one time or another. Not that it kept 40,000 wind-shredded Minnesotans from coming out every day of the PGA to worship at the shrine of Tiger Woods and even occasionally cheer the Jack Fleck — I mean, Rich Beem — who beat him.

Rich Beem's name had PGA champion written all over it even before he won at Hazeltine for Pepto-Bismol, which is among his favorite beverages. But he won it over the last nine holes, just when the world's ruling player went on a birdie binge and finally started looking like Tiger Woods instead of, well, Tiger Leonard.

After all of the zany weather for three days, it was supposed to be a Tiger Woods-Justin Leonard battle on Sunday — all the other Humpty Dumptys aside. So what were the odds on Tiger beating Justin by 10 shots, 67 to 77, and still losing the tournament?

About what they would have been on Rich Beem winning, I dare say. Two weeks earlier Beem had survived Steve Lowery's double eagle at the International for his second PGA Tour victory, but this was only his fourth attempt to win a major. The first, a missed cut at Carnoustie in his rookie year of '99, was preceded by what Beem gingerly described as an "altercation" earlier that week in Scotland — which he later clarified as an arrest for DUI. (And you thought Jean Van de Velde had a bad day.) Not for nothing was the title of the book on Beem's rookie season Bud, Sweat and Tees.

Beem, who turned 32 a week after doing the major deal in Minnesota, has settled down a bit after getting married last December. Still, a guy who was selling car stereos and cell phones six years ago wasn't the one you were betting on to stop Tiger from a second Triple Crown in the majors. There was all the Grand Slam talk after Tiger's victories at Augusta and Bethpage earlier this year, and even after a third-round 81 in the British Open at Muirfield, a victory at Hazeltine would have matched his triple major victories of 2000 at Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Valhalla. That year it was Bob May who almost took Tiger out at the PGA. This time it was Rich Beem.

Bob May? Rich Beem? What happened to your Phil Mickelsons, your Sergio Garcias, your David Duvals? Why is it that the stars so often leave it to the understudies to do the dirty work against Tiger?

Tiger "plays in an era where guys lie down, big time," Johnny Miller was heard to say earlier in the week.

"It's a nice thing for Tiger, but it's not necessarily the best thing for golf. ... Tiger's gotten more gifts on the last day than anybody in history."

So while Beem was throwing a sweet final-round 68 at Tiger, finishing with his only three-putt of the week, the A-list crowd was nowhere to be seen.

Yeah, Garcia tied for 10th after a 68, but he entered the final round 14 strokes back. And that was enough to qualify him and Pierre Fulke as lone bright spots for the Europeans with the Ryder Cup to come six weeks later. The PGA usually serves as the final qualifier for the Cup, but those 12-man teams had been decided last year before the terrorist attacks delayed the competition until this year. Eight of the 12 Europeans missed the cut at the PGA by a combined 47 strokes, including Colin Montgomerie (by four shots), Jesper Parnevik (by seven) and Lee Westwood (10), which probably had captain Sam Torrance looking for Beem's Pepto-Bismol. On the U.S. side, eight of the 12 made the cut, though the tie for 34th place by Mickelson and Duval probably didn't do a whole lot for captain Curtis Strange.

Tiger was joined in the top 10 by Cup teammates Mark Calcavecchia and Jim Furyk. He compared his final-round ball-striking and putting favorably to his performances in his eight previous pro major titles, but his inability to take advantage of Hazeltine's par 5s was part of his undoing. A balky driver allowed him to play the 16 par 5s in five under par for the week, which must have seemed like five over for him.

Beem mashed his driver without fear, conjuring up images of John Daly winning the PGA in '91. "He had nothing to lose," said Beem, who's all of 5-feet-8 and 153 pounds. "Like I felt."

I agree with those who think Beem's eagle at the 597-yard 11th was the blow that sideswiped Tiger — he saw it go up on the board and promptly bogeyed two holes in a row, which meant his four closing birdies left him one stroke short. The sight of Rich urging that 276-yard 5-wood to within six feet, hollering and striding forward, was a thing to remember. He was either Admiral Halsey's task force steaming toward Leyte Gulf or a guy late for Happy Hour somewhere in El Paso.

Bill Eschenbrenner, an original member of the old Fort Worth Goat Hills gang, has worked on Beem's swing for years in El Paso and walked the entire 72 holes with him at Hazeltine. "Winning the International gave him a lot of confidence and helped him hang on," Eschenbrenner said. "He was really nervous, especially on 17."

That was after the birdie bomb from 35 feet on 16 gave Beem a three-shot cushion.

"It was like a rock concert out there," Beem said. But when things got intense, "I found a place to put the pressure. I just focused in on tightening my abdominal muscles, which took away the tension in my arms and shoulders. I told my wife I've got to do more Pilates."

  • Pilates? Focusing in on tightening abdominal muscles?* This isn't your grandfather's PGA Tour.

Mother Nature's leaders after Day One were Furyk and Fred Funk. At the completion of Round Two there was a five-way tie involving Beem, Funk, Leonard, Calcavecchia and Retief Goosen — Funk and Beem sounding dangerously like the kind of names who might join all those Jeff Slumans who had managed to win one-third of the 83 previous PGAs.

If you're curious as to why 33 guys over the years have made the PGA their only professional major, I think you have to consider that the PGA of America — our dutiful club pros — generally tries to set up the PGA Championship courses in a way that will remind the touring pros of the types of layouts they find on the regular tour. Wide fairways, medium-speed greens, forgiving rough, mundane pin placements.

Club pros don't like to hear complaints from their heroes. Easier conditions, in other words, than they confront in the U.S. Open. Comparative scoring confirms this. Check out most of the results at the clubs that have had both U.S. Opens and PGAs, and what you more or less learn is that the PGA entices far lower scoring. Hazeltine became the 20th such Open/PGA venue, now in there with all the Oakmonts, Invernesses, Rivieras, Medinahs, Atlantas and the other Oak joints. To remind you, Hazeltine's U.S. Opens of 1970 and 1991 produced winning totals of Tony Jacklin's 281 and Payne Stewart's 282, but trust me, if they'd caught this Hazeltine setup of wide fairways and relatively slow greens, they'd have pounced on it like an endorsement contract.

After the violent lightning, thunder and rain blew in Friday evening and lasted through most of the night, a terrifying light show that made nervous funnel-watching a popular sport, you were given to wonder if this PGA might not be over till December. Which wouldn't have made it all that unusual. Your grizzled historian is aware that the PGA was once played in December. Yeah. That's when Leo Diegel won at Hillcrest in L.A. As a matter of fact, the PGA has been played in nine different months for reasons that remain arcane at best. All but January, March and April.

Although I've covered close to half of all the PGAs, I did miss that week in December of '29, having been in the process of getting born. So I was looking forward to the prospect. But 60,000 gallons of water were pumped off the course by 9 on Saturday morning. That afternoon Tiger somehow stayed in contention by turning a 78 into a 72. But the fact is, Tiger never played well enough all week to deserve his second Triple Crown, and in the end it was as much of a miracle that he finally grabbed his first silver medal in a major — putting him only 18 behind Jack Nicklaus in that category — as it was that the unlikely Rich Beem now has a major championship.