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Rags to riches tale for Rich Beem

In the rich man, poor man life of the 84th USPGA champion, the joy Rich Beem felt at defeating Tiger Woods at Hazeltine to lift his first major championship on Sunday was tempered by the memory of how his only visit to the Open championship in Scotland was tarnished by a drink driving offence in 1999.

Once a party animal whose lifestyle was chronicled in the book Bud, Sweat and Tees: A Walk On The Wild Side, Beem remembered yesterday being fined around £450 and banned from driving for 18 months. "I got arrested for being drunk under the influence in the town of Ayr," he recalled. "I got a fine, but the worst punishment was the embarrassment that went with it.

"I’ve said this before, but, yeah, it was a pretty low time in my life. I’m still very embarrassed by it, but I did it and I move on. The whole week at Carnoustie was no fun. The week started poorly with my little altercation and that soured things from there. The golf course was even worse. I took my dad over to Scotland - that was probably the only highlight for me."

Beem has learnt over the past three years to drink less, practise more and make headlines for the right reasons, though his life-altering victory in Minnesota might have been regarded as too outrageous even coming from the pen of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

Former mobile phone salesman who enjoys a refreshment takes on Tiger Woods in the season’s final major and wins the day even though the world No1 makes consecutive birdies at the last four holes. Bearing in mind Beem had only ever qualified for three previous majors at Carnoustie, Medinah and Southern Hills, you would hardly have dared to make up such a rags to Rich fairytale.

But the aggressive, straight-as-an-arrow golf which enabled the winner to card 68 for 278 was a joy to behold and belied his lack of top-flight experience. While most high-profile golfers seem to live in awe of Tiger and back off whenever Woods takes centre stage, Beem took a leaf out of John Daly’s book and decided to go for broke.

He challenged the greens at Hazeltine’s par 5s with fairway woods and made birdies at the third and seventh holes before fashioning the shot of the last day on the 11th. Once he’d reached the fairway with a big drive and made another pure strike with his 5 wood, Beem hurried the ball on with hand gestures and was rewarded when he holed a six-foot putt for eagle.

It was that smash and grab raid which got Woods’ attention and for a couple of holes threw the game’s finest player off balance. Tiger lost his way and made a couple of bogeys at the 13th and 14th holes only to take a deep breath, re-group and put in, arguably, the greatest finish of his career.

The four closing holes at Hazeltine are among the most challenging in championship golf. As Woods walked up the 15th fairway, he said to his caddie Steve Williams: "If we birdie the last four holes, we’ll win the tournament. Let’s just suck it up and get the job done."

That was exactly what Tiger did, though for once he underestimated his opponent. Beem suggested on Saturday night he might be physically sick if he held the lead going onto the 16th tee on Sunday. As it turned out, the nerves which force this edgy golfer to swig Pepto-Bismol before every round were remarkably under control. He concentrated on tightening his stomach muscles and somehow was able to take away the tension from his arms and shoulders.

"I hit a beautiful 7 wood onto the fairway and that’s when I got a little nervous," he recalled. I was really pumped up and felt afraid I was going to hit my 9 iron too far. I had 148 yards left and if I hit it solid I knew I was going to be too long. So I backed off a little bit and pushed it. I honestly didn’t know if it was going to clear the water hazard or not. Luckily, it did."

All of which left Beem with 25 feet for birdie. "What can I say about that putt," he grinned. "It was just unbelievable."

The former assistant pro, who disliked teaching and often turned up for work at El Paso country club with bloodshot eyes, was on the brink of an extraordinary success. He kept his emotions in check by not allowing his thoughts to get too far ahead of himself.

But the man who still carries his ID from the time he worked at Magnolia Hi-Fi in Seattle earning $7 an hour - "I don’t ever intend to forget where I came from" - also turned out to be that rare animal in contemporary golf: a free spirit. Wild Thing II, if you like.

"I remember watching John Daly win the USPGA at Crooked Stick on TV and he looked like he didn’t have a care in the world," Beem recalled. "John had that spectacular, no-holds-barred attitude and just attacked everything. I guess I kind of had a similar thought. John had nothing to lose at Crooked Stick and I felt the same way at Hazeltine."

The son of a teaching pro, Larry, who coaches college golfers at New Mexico State, Beem’s career has followed a tortuous path. The 31-year-old played mini-tours before quitting the tournament scene in 1995. After selling mobile phones and car stereos, he worked in the pro shop at El Paso, but wasn’t cut out for the long hours and low pay.

He re-joined the PGA Tour in 1999 and after winning the Kemper Open went on a six-month bender. Beem credits his wife, Sarah, with helping him mature into a different person from the man fined for drink driving in Scotland.

Two weeks ago in Denver, he won the International, a Stableford competition, and on Sunday the birdies and eagles kept on coming at the USPGA. By a twist of fate, a family who share the same surname sent Rich an e-mail before Hazeltine which read: "Beem wins 2002 PGA by one over Woods."

Sometimes dreams come true.

Despite his failure to clinch the ninth major title of his career at the USPGA championship, Tiger Woods will be taking less advice in the future from his respected swing coach Butch Harmon.

The pair have worked together since Woods secured the 1997 US Masters, but the world No1 believes he is now able to solve many of his swing faults on his own.

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