The USPGA Championship may be, by general consensus, the minor major, but it is the major major in terms of tales of the unexpected.
Few will fail to recollect the explosion of John Daly onto the world golfing scene when he took the title after entering the ranks as a fifth substitute. Who also can forget Bob May playing head to head with Tiger Woods over play-off holes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?
This year's event at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minnesota surpassed everything that has gone before. I start to suspect that this event is played to a script written by a USPGA employee who once enjoyed a Hollywood scriptwriting career before being dismissed for misuse of drink and drugs.
Although Rich Beem had enjoyed two tournament successes prior to Hazeltine, even his mother could not have had idle dreams of him distinguishing himself. He is best known as the key figure in the book 'Blood, Sweat and Tees', a tale of carousing and partying on the USPGA tour. As such, he is something of a cult figure in the bleachers and among the rednecks that follow the circuit. But he has almost sneakily amassed $1.6 million on the Tour over the last four years, ranking him 73rd in the earnings table, and is held by those that know to be a very good golfer when he puts his mind to it.
Beem certainly put his mind to it in the land of the 1,000 lakes that conspired with its climate to adding the Hazeltine course as its 1,001st lake on Friday during the third round. In the expected prairie wind but unexpected rain, Tiger Woods proved conclusively that he could walk on water and Justin Leonard showed that there are horses for courses.
Having plodded his way to an amateur course record while taking full points in the Walker Cup at Hazeltine, Leonard again plodded out of the shadows of the Tour where he has secreted himself for some months to shoot a 69. This he did in the third round on Saturday in a wind that blew six of the world's elite to scores over 80 and the field to an average of 76.
After 54 holes, Leonard started the last round in clement weather conditions with a three shot lead over Beem, four shots ahead of Fred Funk and five ahead of Tiger Woods. It took Beem a mere eight holes to overhaul Leonard, but menacingly, Tiger Woods was only one stroke behind.
I would be quite happy for Claudia Schiffer to correct me on this point but I doubt if there is anything more exciting than the last nine holes of a major championship with Tiger Woods one stroke behind AN Other.
Beem, bewilderingly eagled the 597 yard 11th hole after leaving a 271 yard struck 3-wood to within eight feet of the hole. When he birdied the 13th after Woods had three putted it for bogey, Beem had taken an incredible five shot lead.
Leonard had faded but was not out of the picture. This, after all, is the guy who came from five shots behind to win the Open at Troon and from 10 shots behind to force a play-off with Paul Lawrie and Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie.
Woods bogeyed the 357-yard 14th hole and it seemed then safe to conclude that that was that. His head went visibly down and he looked as if he would rather be fishing in Alaska or even Pittenweem than playing golf in the anonymity of Minnesota. For a minute he appeared almost humanly young and reassuringly vulnerable.
Suddenly, however, he appeared to recall who he was and no matter how badly he was playing, a lot more was expected of him. He proceeded to birdie every one of the last four holes. This is arguably the best golf that he or anyone else has ever played. Woods' determination, concentration and ability is famed, of course, but these four closing holes at Hazeltine are surely the greatest demonstration to date of his unique ability.
It speaks volumes for Beem that he controlled every one of his bodily functions to reach the last green requiring only a bogey five for victory. He wisely took all three putts on the last green to carry the day with the $1 million reward for his efforts.
It is impossible to resist comparing Beem with John Daly. He looks as if he has had a hamburger too many and he hits the ball a long way. His lifestyle to date is not dissimilar, less the alcoholism, and only six years ago he was selling stereos and mobile phones in Seattle.
Lest he be considered a likely one-major-wonder, however, it should not be forgotten that Daly went on after several hiccups to win the Open. On this form and with this self-control, Beem may well beam holding up the Claret Jug.
|| 21 - AUGUST 2002