Twenty years after his stunning victory at the 2002 PGA Championship, 51-year-old Rich Beem relives those four career-changing days at Hazeltine National and reveals what was going through his mind as Tiger mounted one of his famous Sunday charges
Interview by Jack Martin
Let’s scroll back two decades, to the moment you arrived at the 2002 PGA Championship. You’d won a PGA Tour event, The International, just two weeks earlier, and had a couple of other top-five finishes already that season, so you were hardly a no-hoper – ranked 73 in the world – but what were your expectations for that week at Hazeltine?
I had absolutely zero expectations, given that it was only my fourth ever major, but my form coming into that tournament was extraordinary. It was probably the best it had been during my entire career. I was hitting the ball extremely well, driving it long and straight, and my putting, which had kind of been my Achilles Heel throughout my career up to that point, had finally come good and I was feeling pretty confident about my game.
I had switched to a new putter, a STX Sync Tour, at the beginning of the season and it seemed to transform my putting. It had a centre shaft with a big, bulbous weight behind it. It wasn’t pretty to look at, but it did wonders for my putting stats.
I also felt that I knew the golf course at Hazeltine as well as anybody, but when you go to a major, they’re different animals. I just tried to play free and loose.
What do you recall on the early rounds?
I started out with a level-par 72, so was already four shots off the pace after the first round, but certainly not out of it. A second round 66 took me into a five-way share of the lead with Calc [Mark Calcavecchia], Fred Funk, Retief Goosen and Justin Leonard. Tiger was two shots further back.
I shot another 72 on Saturday, and I remember making a 12-foot birdie putt at the last hole which put me into the final group with Justin Leonard, otherwise Tiger and Fred Funk would have been going out last with Justin. Heading into Sunday I felt really comfortable in my own skin and with my golf game.
At what point did you think you could win? And what was it like seeing Tiger charge up the leaderboard?
I’ve told this story many times, but I literally didn’t pay any attention to what Tiger was doing, or what anyone else was doing. I was playing so well, and so focused on what I was doing, that I was literally oblivious to what was going on around me. I couldn’t control what they were doing and they couldn’t control what I was doing, so it seemed like a waste of mental energy to think about those things.
All I knew was that I was leading by one after nine, having been three behind Justin at the start. I didn’t see another leaderboard until 13, when I saw I had a six-shot lead with five to go. And I was like, ‘Wow, I really have a chance to win this thing’.
Of course, I heard the cheers around the course, and, at first, I thought they were for Fred [Funk], as he had some story going that week, but I soon realised that they for Tiger, but I just tried to staye calm and go about my business.
I remember after making birdie at 13, the walk from the green to the 14th tee was about 50 yards, but it felt like about 150, as all these thoughts started entering my head. I thought the only way I was going to lose this was if I screwed something up, so I kind of gave myself a talking to and just got on with it. I holed a 40-foot putt for birdie on 16, and standing on the tee at 17, I still had a two-stroke lead, and it was all still in my own hands. I pared the par-three 17th and had that two-shot cushion going down the last.
The great thing was that I had a world-class caddie on my bag, Steve Duplantis – who is sadly no longer with us – and he knew what I was like when I was under extreme pressure. I remember when we got to the 18th tee he pulled out the driver and said to me ‘Hit this thing as hard as you can’. I got up there and swung it as hard as I could and it just sailed straight down the middle and was one of the longest drives I hit that week. I didn’t miss a single fairway in the final round and Steve knew that the harder I hit it that driver the straighter it went. I found the green with my second shot had the luxury of being able to three-putt for a bogey and the win.
I really went into that final round thinking that I had nothing to lose, so it really helped free me up to play my own game.
Did Tiger say anything to you after you won?
He congratulated me outside the scorer’s hut. He had a big smile on his face and it felt genuine. But I know he would have been disappointed. If nothing else, he faked it very well. He still gives me a bit of grief about the win. That’s fine, he can give me grief for the rest of my life because it means I’ve done something good!
Did the win mean more to you knowing that you had beaten Tiger when he was at the height of his powers?
No, not personally. But I remember three weeks later I went to the German Masters and Seve Ballesteros came up to me in the hotel saying ‘You, you beat Tiger. You showed the world he can be beat.’ It was a badge of honour to me that Seve thought I beat the best player in the world. I still have the photo of him with me and my wife. The guy was a stud.
What did you do that night to celebrate?
We hopped on a plane to Seattle. We stayed up until about 4am giggling and laughing. You just don’t want the night to end so that you can soak up everything. I only got about two hours sleep that night.
You didn’t win on tour again after your success at the PGA. How do you look back at your career? Is it with a degree of satisfaction or do you have regrets?
I don’t have any regrets. From where I was in 1998, working at El Paso Country Club, making $13,000 a year as a club pro, to being a major champion four years later. Come on, who does that? Sure, I wish I could have done better after winning the PGA Championship, but if somebody told me 25 years ago that I would win the PGA and now be commentating for Sky Sports, I would have said ‘I’m in’. It was just a phenomenal career and I loved every minute of it, for the most part. I’m very fortunate to have had all the successes that I did.
Do you enjoy competing on the Champions Tour?
I do, but I wish I could get out there more often, as I’ve got a competitive edge to satisfy, but my work schedule with Sky prevents me from playing more. It’s tough competing against guys who are practicing day in and day out, and playing most weeks, but it’s still a lot of fun.
Has being a TV analyst helped you in anyway as a senior player?
Absolutely. I’ve got a front row seat to what guys like Rory [McIlroy] and see how they chip, putt and drive, so you’re always learning. I remember watching Jason Day for Sky Sports back in 2015. He was making mistakes and I thought, ‘If the world No.1 is making mistakes and is handling it, why aren’t I doing that when I’m on the course? Accepting mistakes.’ We’re always learning in this game.
At 51 years young, you’re obviously still young enough to know a lot of the guys still competing on the main tours. Do you think it’s harder to be objective as a commentator when you still have relationships with players?
I think it helps if you have relationships with the guys on the driving range. You do need to be friends with them to a point because you can’t judge everything that you see just by how they’re hitting the golf ball, how they’re swinging, this and that. You have no idea whether a player’s mother or child is sick. You need to understand what is going on in these players’ worlds, because what happens inside the ropes for a player is partially golf-related, and partly what’s going on in their life. We are not robots. If somebody in your family is not doing well, or if anything off-course is going on, it’s going to affect you inside the ropes and there is no getting away from it. This is the real world. This is how it all happens.
The game seems to be in good hands with the current group of top young players. Would you have been able to compete in this era?
I wouldn’t. These guys are so big and strong. They are fearless. It’s not just the length they hit it, but they just turn it on so often. Their mentality is so strong.
Which player are you most impressed with?
Jon Rahm. The shots he has in his locker, and how he manages his game, is so impressive. He has all tools to be competing for the big titles for a very long time.
How important is that the best players have a global schedule?
You want to have the best players in the world to support one tour. There’s a lot of Americans who don’t want to leave their country, and that’s fine, but I think if you’re to become a better all-round player you need to compete all over the world. The slight merging that has taken place between the DP World Tour and PGA Tour is great for the game. Having a bigger Scottish Open, with a more international field, for instance, is good for golf.
You played alongside your son, Michael, at the PNC Championship – a tournament formerly known as the Father/Son Challenge – last December. What was that like?
It was tremendous. An amazing experience. I’ll always have the memories of that week. It was is cool to play alongside your son in a real tournament. Michael is still learning how to play the game. He’s figured out the shots to play. Just playing some college golf would be a good experience for him.
It must have been great to play with him, though, because that’s how you started out in golf, playing with your dad, wasn’t it?
I grew up with my dad playing golf at college and then he was a club pro for 25 years. He was always an amazing player. People would be wondering why I wasn’t as good as him when I was younger, but this is a game where you find your stride at different times of life. You don’t have to be awesome at 15. You can be awesome at 30. It’s the way the game works.
Lastly, where’s your favourite place to play golf?
Can I have two? Scotland and Ireland. You can’t get better than those two. Any links golf I love. It’s the purest form of the game. I’ll play it in any weather. I just laugh through it.