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Rich Beem's Hard Road

I remember the first time I heard Rich Beem's name. It was May 27, 1999, the first round of the Kemper Open. I was covering the tournament for Sports Illustrated, much to my chagrin. The Kemper is a run-of-the-mill event populated by the PGA Tour's rank and file. No Tiger, no buzz and no story to be found. I had been walking the course in ninety-degree heat, trying to soak up some atmosphere. Returning to the clubhouse, I was hit by a blast of pressroom air-conditioning just as an announcement was made over a scratchy intercom that the early leader had made his way to the interview area—Rich Beem. I had the same reaction as everybody else: Who? I ambled to the AstroTurfed tent where press conferences were held. Beem would surely shoot seventy-five the next day and never be heard from again. But I had nothing better to do.

I remember how nervous Beem looked, fidgeting in an oversize velour chair while bored reporters filed in. At five-foot-eight he is one of the littlest guys in golf—shorter than Corey Pavin, shorter than Justin Leonard, shorter than Natalie Gulbis. But once Beem opened his mouth he made a big impression. His first utterance was, "This is different. I'm used to sitting around and saying bad things about my round." That brought a chorus of chuckles from the press corps, and Beem was off and running. Asked to share some personal information, he said, "My passion is my stereo. What I am out here trying to do is make enough money so I can dump more of it into my truck." Beem was pressed for more details on his truck's sound system. "I've got a kicker, subwoofers, sound stream amplifiers, tweeters, mids, sixes," he said. "It's kind of fun to pull up to the low riders in El Paso that are playing all the jams and put in Van Halen, crank it up and blow them away."

Asked how to get to El Paso, Texas, his adopted hometown, he said, "Turn left to nowhere. Go twenty miles."

I was thunderstruck. This unknown twenty-eight-year-old rookie was the freshest, most engaging character I had run across in six years of covering the PGA Tour. Beem went on to win the event, the most exhilarating breakthrough since John Daly emerged from the Arkansas backwaters at the 1991 PGA Championship. Sports Illustrated devoted four pages to his story, which I wrote in an effortless burst of enthusiasm. Like everybody else at the Kemper, I had been charmed by Beem's thoroughly unlikely journey from cell-phone salesman to Texas golf hustler to Tour winner. He was a throwback to an earlier, more innocent era on Tour, when the golfers were salty, fun-loving characters, not remote, sanitized multinational corporations. So I kept in touch with Beem, stewing on his story. That summer I told him I wanted to write a book about him. No agents were involved—just a few phone calls and an exchange of e-mails.

Soon I flew to El Paso to begin work on what would become Bud, Sweat, & Tees, a chronicle of Beem's misadventures that was published by Simon & Schuster in 2001. It told the cautionary tale of a young man who flew too high too fast and crashed to earth in a storm of beer cans and willing women. But as last summer's PGA Championship would reveal, that was hardly the end of the story.

October 1999: The predawn sky is cobalt, and in the desert chill the moonlight whitens our breath. After three days poking around El Paso it is time to get on the road. This early morning Beem is leaving his hometown for the bright lights of Scottsdale, Arizona, where so many of the Tour's movers do their shaking. Along for what will be a ten-hour drive is Beem's best friend, David Wyatt, who is already wired from heavy infusions of caffeine. Stuffed in Beem's Ford Explorer are most of his worldly possessions. I'm crammed in the backseat; buckled in next to me is the huge crystal trophy from the Kemper. "If we get in an accident, be sure to throw your body in front of the trophy, to protect it," Beem says with a grin. He guns his rig onto I-10 West and cranks up his vaunted sound system, overwhelming the senses with the rollicking strains of Live, his favorite band. As the hours whiz by and I-10 melts into the foreboding desert landscape, Beem tells me his story, and what a story it is.

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