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Chip Beck seeks way back from golf wilderness

The Lake Forest, Ill., resident catches the 7:24 a.m. train to downtown Chicago. Occasionally somebody will recognize him, but mostly he's just another briefcase-toting commuter headed to work.

Chip Beck didn't envision his life taking this turn when he was one of the top players on the PGA Tour in the late 1980s and into the '90s. One of the most stunning falls in golf history forced him to change his perspective.

"I'm not making money playing golf," Beck, 47, said bluntly.

These days, Beck's earnings come from the insurance business. For a little more than a year he has been working for National Life of Vermont in Chicago. On most days he exchanges his golf shirt for a business suit. Appointments with prospective customers have replaced tee times.

Beck hasn't given up on his golf career. In fact, he has retooled his swing under the guidance of instructor Jim Suttie and said he is hitting his drives straight for the first time in years. He has high hopes for a successful run on the Champions Tour, the 50-and-older circuit that has been a second act for dozens of players.

But, at 47, Beck is in golf's no-man's land, three years away from the veterans' tour. Beck still plays an occasional tournament on the Nationwide Tour, including the LaSalle Bank Open that begins Thursday at the Glen Club in Glenview.

Beck knows how difficult it is to compete with the Nationwide Tour's up-and-comers, who are striving to get where he has been. He sees young, powerful players hitting 5-irons while he's reaching for his 4-wood.

"You have to be a long hitter to compete," Beck said. "They've taken me out of play."

Beck's collapse put him out of play for nearly a decade. He won four times on the PGA Tour between 1988 and 1992. He shot the second 59 in PGA Tour history on Oct. 11, 1991, in the third round of the Las Vegas Invitational. He was second on the money list with $916,818 in 1988 and played on the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1993.

But almost overnight he went from a runner-up finish in the 1993 Masters to the epitome of a player who suddenly loses it. The slump was so profound it led to a nickname: "Poor Ol' Chip."

Beck appeared at occasional corporate outings and won $12,438 in 12 Nationwide events last year. Clearly, golf wasn't paying the bills. He sold a big house in Lake Forest several years ago and moved into a smaller one. Other trappings from his former seven-figure income also vanished.

With the Champions Tour still in the distance, Beck realized he had to do something to make a living. That's when his friend John Harris, a top amateur player in Minneapolis, suggested he look into the insurance business.

The idea made sense to Beck.

"You never know in golf," he said. "To think it's going to be a paved road to the Hall of Fame isn't realistic. That's why I never put all my eggs in one basket."

Beck also noticed that many standout amateur players were insurance men, including Jay Sigel, the former U.S. Amateur champ who's now a Champions Tour regular, and Joel Hirsch, a two-time British Senior Amateur champion. Beck made the call to Hirsch at National Life.

"I thought he would be great in the insurance business," Hirsch said. "Chip knows a lot of people."

It has been quite a transition. Beck has yet to achieve scratch-player status in his new profession.

"What's my handicap?" Beck said. "My handicap is that when you've played golf your whole life and then go into something new, there's so much to learn. It's so vast."

Beck, though, is getting positive reviews on his attempts to learn the business, according to John Vitt, the general agent for National Life.

"He has read what he has had to read," Vitt said. "He's into it 110 percent."

Nobody had to teach Beck the basic fundamental of selling insurance-building relationships. His makeup always has been his biggest strength.

Even during his darkest days as a player, Beck kept smiling. Off the course, he reacts to people as if they are celebrities, not the other way around.

"He has a dynamic personality," Vitt said. "You can't find a more enthusiastic, positive guy."

Meeting new people is Beck's favorite part of the job.

"I enjoy getting together with people in the community," he said. "You go to dinner with someone, learn about them. You're dealing with people's lives. You can help them."

Beck's name opens doors. But it doesn't close deals.

As in golf, failure is a fact of life in the insurance business. Hirsch believes Beck's ability to cope with rebuffed sales pitches will help him succeed long term.

"You have to deal with a lot of rejection," Hirsch said. "That's why golfers are typically good at this business. You handle rejection on the golf course and you learn how to bounce back."

Few well-established pros have handled more rejection in golf than Beck. His years-long search for answers eventually led him to Suttie, who has a teaching academy at Green Garden Country Club in Frankfort.

After two years of work, Suttie said Beck is back to where he was at his peak -- straight off the tee.

"When you go down as far as he did, it takes a while to get back up," Suttie said. "Now he has found a swing that can hold up. He has found a way to manage his misses. He's getting more confident every day."

"Doc's going to get me to the Champions Tour," Beck said.

Until then, Beck will work on his game as he works in the insurance business. Beck says the break has been therapeutic. Looking back, he wishes he had done it in 1995 when the slump first took hold.

"He's at peace with himself now," Suttie said. "He's a mentally tough guy. He experienced the downside and came through it. He's enjoying life at this point."

Beck hopes to experience some of his old success when he reaches the Champions Tour. Even then, he knows it will be fleeting. He told Vitt he may have only 10 good years left to play pro golf, but he has 20-25 years remaining in insurance. Last fall, he received his first commission check as an insurance man.

Ever positive, Beck only sees one side: the bright side.

"This has been great for me," Beck said. "It's nice to be able to explore some different areas in life. Ultimately, this is going to make me a better person."

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