Golf was in Rich Beem's DNA. His father, Larry, grew up as a hustler on Los Angeles's public courses and went on to become an all-American at New Mexico State University, where he still coaches the golf team. As Rich grew up, Larry Beem worked as a pro at military courses overseas, including a stint in Germany—where Rich was booted off the Berlin American High School golf team after getting caught pounding beers on a train ride home from a tournament. Rich's complicated relationship with his dad led him to reject the game more than once. Yet he followed Larry's spike-steps to New Mexico State, where Rich arrived in 1988 and won one college tourney in an utterly undistinguished career.
"Rich didn't hit it very far," a contemporary says, "or very straight. Bad combination. He was a decent player on a mediocre team, certainly nothing to catch your eye."
Yet he caught the eye of Ted Thie, chief operating officer at Westward Ho Country Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where Beem fled after college. "Rich was a cocky kid, but in a good way," says Thie, who met the new assistant pro in 1994. "He walked around like he was Joe Namath or Reggie Jackson, oozing this belief that he could do anything.
Finally on his own, far from his father's world, Beem was eager to test himself. While working at Westward Ho he played the Dakotas Tour, one of golf's most podunk circuits. "Rich's personality as a player is all about the crowd, the limelight, the adrenaline," Thie says. "But there's no atmosphere at those tournaments. Nobody's there, nobody cares."
Beem never lost his thirst for a good time. Around Westward Ho, he picked up the nickname "Bag-Room Billy"—whenever he showed up for work hung over, he would be banished to the bag room, to sober up out of sight of the membership. Further eroding his focus was Thie's sister, Tonya, a comely waitress in the Westward Ho grillroom. She and Beem were engaged in 1995, and during his forays to minitour events, he struggled with his game and his emotions, missing Tonya as well as innumerable par putts. Soon she was off to Western Washington University, and she gave her fiancé an ultimatum: It's me or it's golf. Beem chose the girl, and they moved to Seattle. "It wasn't hard to give up the game," Beem says. "It's hard to love golf when you're always getting beaten up by it."
In the shadow of the Space Needle, Beem took a job at Magnolia Hi-Fi, selling stereos and cell phones for $7 an hour. He met David Wyatt at an employee orientation meeting, and though they became close friends, Beem barely spoke about golf. But something snapped inside him on Easter Sunday, 1996, watching on TV as his college rival Paul Stankowski won the BellSouth Classic, a victory worth $234,000. Suddenly Beem had a craving to tee it up again.
"On my birthday," says Wyatt, "we went to a place called Taylor Creek. Rich had mentioned once or twice that he used to be a golf pro, but I knew he hadn't touched a club in six months. The first hole is a 380-yard par four. Rich walks up and plants his tee, settles over the ball and just whales it. I had never in my life seen a ball hit like that. It just never came down. I was like, "Man, what the f--- was that?' It was awe-inspiring. Talk about a natural—for him, swinging that club was like going home."