In the early 2000s, the list of golfers who battled Tiger Woods one-on-one down the stretch of a major golf championship and won is short. Rich Beem did exactly that 18 years ago at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club. It was your classic David vs. Goliath matchup. Here’s a look back at the improbable ending that stunned Tiger Woods, the golf world, and changed Beem’s life forever.
Who is Rich Beem?
Rich Beem turned professional in 1994. But success didn’t come early on, and before long Beem found himself selling cell phones and car stereos in Seattle. In 1998, that changed when Beem watched the members of El Paso Country Club, where Beem worked as an assistant pro, celebrate the victory of member J.P. Hayes, who had won his first PGA tournament, the 1998 Buick Classic.
Inspired by Hayes, in the fall of 1998, Beem entered the pressure-packed grind known as the PGA Tour’s three-stage qualifying tournament. Surprisingly, he performed well enough to earn his PGA Tour card and began playing in 1999. For the first four months, it went as well as you might have expected. By May, the unsponsored 28-year-old Beem missed cut after cut and barely registered on the money list.
Then, in late May, Beem caught lightning in a bottle. The unproven rookie shocked the golf world as he went wire-to-wire at the Kemper Open claiming his first PGA Tour victory. His excitement, however, was short lived. By 2001, after years of partying and not taking the game as seriously as he should, Beem struggled, was out of the top 125 on the money list, and was staring down a return trip to Q school.
The 2002 season gets off to a good start
Fortunately, for Rich Beem, he played some clutch golf down the stretch and closed out the 2001 season with a seventh-place finish at the Michelob Championship to secure his card for 2002, a year that would turn out to be the best of Beem’s career.
In March of 2002, Beem finished fourth at the Genuity Championship and collected a nice paycheck of $225,600. A couple months later, he performed well at the site of his only tour victory, the Kemper Open, and was feeling good heading into The International tournament held in Colorado the last week of July.
In the modified Stableford scoring system, Beem and Steve Lowery ran away from the field. On Sunday, Beem was just one shot better and claimed his second PGA Tour victory, just two weeks before the PGA Championship.
Rich Beem upsets Tiger Woods
Heading into the PGA Championship, Rich Beem was confident. He didn’t necessarily think he was going to win, but he did think he would perform well. After a first-round score of par 72, Beem shot up to the top of the leaderboard on day 2 with an impressive 6-under 66.
Following a third-round 72, Beem was three shots behind leader Justin Leonard and two shots clear of a lurking Tiger Woods heading into the final round. Beem’s final round started off promising as he tallied three birdies in the first seven holes. At the turn, Beem had claimed the lead at 8-under, Leonard had tumbled to 6-under, and Woods had closed the gap to one at 7-under.
The back nine set up for a dramatic finish, and it didn’t disappoint. Woods did everything he could to pull off a come-from-behind victory as he birdied each of the last four holes to post a 9-under score. Beem, who was in the final group behind Woods, pulled off a dramatic Tigeresque-like putt on No. 16, draining a long putt from 35 feet for birdie. After successfully navigating the par-3 17th, Beem knew he had a stroke to give, and on the 18th, he closed with a bogey and pulled off the improbable upset victory.
Where is Rich Beem today?
Today, Rich Beem lives in Austin, Texas, where he serves as a golf reporter and analyst for Sky Sports. He doesn’t play golf as much these days, but is looking at a return to play in August on the PGA Tour Champions when he turns 50. In an interview with KXAN, Beem said he still shakes his head when he thinks back to those four days of golf 18 years ago and his improbable win.
“I think Tiger said it perfectly after I won when he said sometimes it helps to be a little naive in a situation like that. And he’s right. I think if I would have known exactly how my life would have changed and what would have come because of that win, I may not have performed as well as I did. I was playing very well going in and had won two weeks prior, but I was still very much an underdog and an unknown. But to go out there and perform that well on a great golf course, and to take down Tiger Woods who at that time was by far the World No. 1 was simply incredible. It’s been a fun ride.”
That day in 2002 was a fun ride for everyone watching as David finally slayed Goliath.