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Helene Elliott

Beem may be `1' to watch again

February 18, 2007|Helene Elliott

His shot was high and true, launching the ball into the azure sky above the Riviera Country Club golf course. When it came to earth, bouncing once before plopping into the cup, Rich Beem's life continued its decided turn for the better.

Beem had been something of a party-hearty guy until marriage, fatherhood and advancing years reined him in. While his life blossomed, his golf game suffered, turning his rally and one-stroke victory over Tiger Woods at the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine into an aberration instead of a sign of promise.

He was "always searching for something," though the 36-year-old Phoenix native never knew just what.

"Between having kids, moving cities and trying to deal with everything else in life, golf wasn't a priority for me. Yes, it was to a point, but I didn't get excited about it," said Beem, who now lives in Austin, Texas.

"And I'm finally getting excited about it again, and I think it's showing in my game, my attitude and things like that."

Beem's ace on the 14th hole at the Nissan Open on Saturday was a moment of pure joy that even his rivals had to applaud. That it contributed to a six-under-par 65 that was the best round of the day and perched him two strokes behind leader Phil Mickelson entering today's final round was almost secondary, at least in that amazing moment.

Knowing that a shiny red sports car awaited anyone who recorded a hole in one, Beem ditched his seven-iron and dashed over to his prize, throwing himself face-first onto the trunk and reaching his arms around each side in a fervent hug while the gallery roared. He then climbed atop the roof and pumped his fists in celebration, a welcome display of abandon in a sport populated by often-blase, corporate-sponsored millionaires.

Can you picture Woods doing a belly whopper onto a coupe?

Beem isn't too jaded to appreciate such windfalls. He recorded only one top-10 tour finish last year and finished in a tie for 68th at last year's Nissan Open; in 2005 he made the cut in only eight of 26 starts and had two top-10 results.

"We should have more guys like him out here," said Ernie Els, who shot a 67 and is among a trio sitting four strokes back.

"He really lets you see what he feels and he's a great guy to play with."

Of course, Els acknowledged that he might not celebrate a hole in one in the same fashion that Beem did.

"With my weight? I think I'll go through the roof," said the 6-3, 210-pound Els.

Beem, a slight figure at 5-8 and 165 pounds, acknowledged he copied the celebration from Peter Jacobsen, who aced the same hole at Riviera in 1994 and promptly jumped into the convertible that was offered as a bonus and pretended to drive it away.

"I'm thinking, 'I just won a car and it's going to cost me a lot in the bar later on,' " Beem said. "You know, when you make it, you're just shocked. I wasn't thinking about picking up three strokes on the field. I wasn't thinking about anything other than the fact it went in the hole."

In addition to his ace, Beem birdied the first, third, fifth, 11th and 17th holes. His only bogey was on the par-four ninth hole, where he drove it into the bunker.

Beem's career was going down the tubes for a while, and he still hasn't figured out why. He says he still enjoys "the occasional cocktail now and again after a good round of golf," like the round he had Saturday, but he picks his spots and his shots more wisely. "At the end of the day, I can be juvenile at times, but I think that as you get older, you just grow up," he said. "And I think that's normal for everybody.

"Besides, the hangovers really hurt."

At least he learned that much. He never could pin down the reason his game disintegrated. "You're searching for a swing, for a putting stroke, anything to kind of work that week, another Band-Aid to put in your golf game to see if you can get through the golf game pretty well," he said. "If I found something one week I would lose it the next week. It was never anything consistent.

"That's no fun when you always feel like you're searching. This is a game ... [that] beats you up eight days a week and you just hope now and again you can kind of get your licks in. You're always searching. Even Tiger always says he's always searching. He's always working hard at it, because you have to.

"It got me down for a while, but it's starting to be fun again, which is nice."

Mickelson, who came back to the field by bogeying the 12th, 13th and 16th holes and shooting a 69, says he likes Beem's game. "It's an aggressive, freewheeling style of play," Mickelson said. "He's got a nice, long, loose, fluid golf swing. He hits the ball a long ways and when he gets hot with his putter he shoots some low scores."

One more round of low scores, and Beem might go home with a lot more than a car that has a few golf-shoe scratches on the trunk.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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