Rich Beem Looks Back at His Improbable P.G.A. Championship

Look for the usual suspects — Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, and the hottest player in the game, Scottie Scheffler — to be in contention at this week’s P.G.A. Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.

But don’t be shocked if someone emerges out of nowhere to upstage the big names.

After all, 20 years ago, Rich Beem did exactly that.

Heading into the 2002 P.G.A. Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., no one was talking about Beem, though he had won the International tournament two weeks earlier in Colorado. People were talking about Tiger Woods, who had captured two majors that year, and other top players.

Heading into the final day of play, Beem was trailing Justin Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion, by three strokes. Woods was five back.

On Sunday, however, while Leonard struggled with a five-over 77 to finish in a tie for fourth, Beem surged.

Two shots that stood out were the 7-wood Beem hit from about 270 yards away on No. 11, a par 5, which led to an eagle, and the 35-foot birdie putt he converted at No. 16. He posted a 68 to prevail by one over Woods. It was Beem’s third victory on the tour.

Woods, after a couple of bogeys on the back nine, birdied the last four holes to put pressure on Beem — which he felt as he got ready to hit his second shot on the final hole.

“I literally was like, ‘Just don’t shank this in front of all these people,’” Beem said. “‘Don’t screw this up now.’”

Beem reached the putting surface with his approach, and then got down in three putts for a bogey. After the final one dropped, he did a little dance on the green.

“I could relax,” he said. “I could breathe again. I was done.”

Beem will never forget the shot at 11. Perhaps the same could be said of Woods.

During a practice day leading up to the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, Woods walked toward the green on No. 12. Beem was heading in the opposite direction.

“Doesn’t say hi,” Beem recalled. “Doesn’t say, ‘What’s up?’”

Then, Beem said, Woods asked him:

How the heck did you get it home in two on Sunday on No. 11?

Beem didn’t miss a beat.

Beem putting on the eighth hole during the final round of the 2002 P.G.A. Championship.Credit…Jeff Haynes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“When you got it, you got it,” he said.

Leonard, who was paired with Beem in 2002, had a similar impression about the approach at 11.

“That’s a shot I was in awe of,” Leonard recalled. “I felt like that was kind of the tournament right there.”

Not quite. Not with Woods still on the course.

Beem heard the roars while Woods was making his late rally.

“I heard them,” Beem said, “but never really thought about them or wanted to react to them.”

Beem was only 31, but the victory would be his last on the tour.

“I’m really bummed out about that,” he said. “That’s probably one of the things that eats at me more than anything else about my career. I probably didn’t grind as hard as I should have in some instances.”

He knew a lot about grinding. Before he qualified for the PGA Tour in 1998, Beem was an assistant pro for two years at El Paso Country Club in Texas. His salary was about $13,000. He made roughly twice as much as that in mini-tour events in New Mexico and West Texas.

Before then, for about nine months, he sold cellphones and car stereos in the Seattle area.

Beem said he was a good phone salesman. The stereos, however, were another matter.

“I was just awful,” he said. “I didn’t realize speakers were different sizes for different cars.”

Beem, 51, now works as a commentator for Sky Sports, though he hopes to compete more often on PGA Tour Champions, the circuit for professional golfers 50 and older.

In the meantime, being exempt as a former P.G.A. champion, he’ll tee off Thursday with the younger guys at Southern Hills. His goal is to play on the weekend.

“I’m healthy enough,” he said. “The body feels fantastic. I’m very capable of making the cut.”