Beem embraces Johannesburg start to European adventure

Sometimes, it seems even Rich Beem would battle to believe how Rich Beem came from three strokes behind to beat Tiger Woods to win the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National.

And it seems almost as incredible that the 41-year-old from Austin, Texas, is in the middle of his opening round in the €1.3-million Joburg Open, co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour.

The man, whose earlier career was captured in Alan Shipnuk’s 2001 book Bud, Sweat and Tees: A Walk on the Wild Side of the PGA Tour, saw his livelihood slipping away after back surgery in 2010 and diminishing eligibility on the PGA Tour thanks to just five 2011 cuts made in 21 starts and a fourth-round 80 at Qualifying School Final Stage which saw him slip to a share of 120th.

It meant he had to do something. “I have a 10-year European Tour exemption through this year from my 2002 PGA Championship win,” he explained to South African journalists ahead of the Joburg Open. “Last year I came back and wasn’t able to secure my card. I went back to Qualifying School, and didn’t really garner enough status doing that. So I decided that taking my European Tour card would be the best thing for me.”

And so the man who says, “Unfortunately, with my home base in Austin, Texas, it’s kind of hard to get to most places,” finds himself halfway around the world in Africa.

“You know, it’s interesting: since we’ve been here, my wife has found quite a few new websites,” he said. “The ones we use, you don’t get airlines like Etihad. You can’t quite fly Southwest Airlines – that doesn’t go outside the US. That’s the hardest part. Trying to figure out where it is; how I can get to certain tournaments.”

He figured out how to get to Johannesburg well enough, and he’s thrilled he did. “We had a private tour on Saturday of the Apartheid Museum and Soweto,” he said. “What an incredible experience. We spent two-and-a-half hours in the Apartheid Museum and probably could have spent pretty much all day there. We had to rush through at the very end, but it was incredible… just absolutely incredible what we saw.”

Overcoming the notorious American aversion to travel has been achieved by making it an adventure: “You have to. Why wouldn’t you? This is fun,” he enthuses. “You get to come to South Africa where we’ve had an absolutely extraordinary time, met some extraordinary people and it’s been nothing short of one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

The adventure is in the golf, too. “On a professional level, I think it’s going to make me a better player,” he said.” I think if you’re able to take your game overseas and play well overseas, and then come back to an environment you already know, then you’re going to have so much more confidence. So I’m looking at it from that angle – the more that I’m able to play around the world on courses I haven’t played and have success, the more I can take that success back to the PGA Tour.”

That the play overseas is in the context of the European Tour adds some teeth to the adventure for him. “The quality of play is fantastic. You’ve got Luke Donald number 1 and you’ve got – look at the top 10 in the world, and I think there are seven players who play mostly on the European Tour. So from that standpoint, the European Tour is obviously a very good breeding ground for fantastic players,” he said.

It’s a pretty good way of turning what could be a make-or-break season into an experience that will serve him well for the rest of his golfing life as well as his life after golf. “I haven’t thought about the season that negatively yet,” he said. “I keep thinking that I’m going to play well and secure cards on both tours and then figure that one out. I would suppose that in some ways it’s make-or-break, but I haven’t quite figured out what I would do if I end up broke. I haven’t made any other plans yet.”

He’ll find South Africa golf fans amongst the warmest he’ll encounter on the European Tour. There is a sense that he gets that already, and is determined to make his European Tour adventure more than simply a means to a PGA Tour end.

“I’m going to fulfil my obligation and play the number of tournaments I need to keep my European Tour card,” he said. “I think that I’m going to be competitive this week. Without a doubt I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait,” he added.

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