Beem opened that year with an eighty-four at the exclusive Mercedes Championships, and starting with the Phoenix Open he missed a numbing seven cuts in a row. He got off the schneid at the BellSouth Classic, tying for sixty-ninth, but in his next event Beem was upended in a freak accident that served as a metaphor for his lousy season. At the MCI Classic he saw a runaway golf cart barreling toward him. A volunteer dropped the gallery rope to let the cart pass, but too late—the rope got tangled on the cart's steering wheel, uprooting a row of stakes and whipping the rope at Beem with enough force to catch him by the ankle and flip him upside down. He landed with a thud on his back and neck. I phoned him a couple days later, and he sounded shaken. "They said I was unconscious for a few seconds," he said. "I was in shock. They put my neck in a brace, strapped me to a gurney, put me in an ambulance and took me to the ER."
Beem recovered, but he never regained his footing, slipping to a feeble 146th on the money list in 2000. At the end of the year he also gave up on Scottsdale—he never quite fit in with the Tour pros there—and headed back to Las Cruces, New Mexico, his old college town. By the following year he had settled for good in nearby El Paso.
New Year's Day, 2001: I am on a tiny island off the Great Barrier Reef, part of a boondoggle on my way to the season-opening WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Australia. This elite event is for the top sixty-four players in the world, which explains why Beem isn't in it. From the island's only phone I check my voice mail in the States and hear a breathless message from the Beemer. I reach him the next day. He has just gotten engaged to Sara Waide. "I feel like I'm starting over," he says as I scribble his words on a stack of cocktail napkins. "It's time to get serious. My exemption is up this season, so it's now or never."
Though it seemed Beem was frittering away his potential, there had been important developments behind the scenes. Since reaching the Tour, he had been endlessly tinkering, seeking the right equipment. "Rich had such a low, straight ball flight that he couldn't stop the ball on a lot of greens," Doan says. In 2000 Beem had become one of only a handful of Tour players to put graphite shafts in his irons. With more weight in the clubhead, he suddenly got more elevation on his approach shots. He also experimented with five- and seven-woods to replace the long irons he had always struggled with.
More important, he found a supportive inner circle, a Team Beem to rely on. His new caddie was Bill Heim, a low-key family man who made the perfect foil for the fiery Beem. Better yet, Beem now had Sara, a knockout blonde who despite appearances was no vapid, camera-chasing Tour wife (they would marry in December 2001) but a pharmaceutical salesperson who knew all about life on the road. Beem credits her with helping turn the old, reckless Beemer into a better man, saying, "I've matured. And a lot of it has to do with my beautiful bride, Sara. She grounds me on the days I need to be grounded and she lets me be a free spirit on the days when that's okay."
In 2001 Beem, a consummate feel player, also committed to a series of mechanical upgrades. He refined his posture and alignment, tweaked his grip and tightened up his backswing, unlocking the power in his freewheeling action. In 2002 his hard work finally paid off. He finished fourth at the Genuity Championship in March, then second at the Kemper three months later, his best showing since his victory three long years ago. Those two clutch performances alone were worth $614,400. The Beem Revival was on.