Kemper leader goes 1 up out of the blue

Rookie Beem leads Pavin, Watts, Glasson

May 28, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC -- There's the former U.S. Open champion who suddenly lost his game three years ago and only recently began to find it. Then there's the guy who has made his millions on the Japanese tour and made his name on a worldwide stage by nearly winning last year's British Open.

Everyone knows who Corey Pavin is, and most golf fans are familiar enough with Brian Watts since he narrowly missed holing out a bunker shot at Royal Birkdale last summer but still managed to force a playoff with Mark O'Meara. But who is Rich Beem and what is he doing at the top of the Kemper Open leader board?

Beem didn't add to his PGA Tour resume yesterday in the opening round of the $2.5 million event at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel. The 28-year-old rookie started one. With a 5-under-par 66, Beem took a one-shot lead over Pavin, Watts and two-time champion Bill Glasson. If Pavin is trying to come back from nowhere, and Watts has come out of nowhere, Beem has never even been there in the first place. He jokes that his adopted hometown of El Paso, Texas, is "20 miles from nowhere." His bio in the tour's media guide is the skimpiest of any mentioned.

"I wrote on my bio that I ski and fish, [but] I don't think I've been skiing in 15 years and I haven't picked up a fishing pole in 20," Beem said. "I just had to make up something when I went to the [Q-school] finals to be honest with you. I had no idea I would be here."

After playing golf for his father, Larry, at New Mexico State, Beem bounced around some West Coast mini-tours for a couple of years. He followed his former fiance up to Seattle, quit playing altogether and made his living selling car stereos and cell phones for six months.

Watching former college rival Paul Stankowski win the BellSouth Classic two years ago revived Beem's interest, and through his father got a job as an assistant pro at El Paso Country Club.

Beem won a couple of local tournaments, including a pro-am in the aptly named Truth Or Consequences, N.M.

Last fall, he qualified for the tour on his first try.

"I think that is huge," said Beem, who finished eighth and earned $25,000, by far the biggest payday of his career. "You've got something like 170 guys. I don't know how many PGA Tour and Nike Tour wins and monies earned."

His rookie year hasn't been easy. Beem has missed the cut at seven of the 11 events in which he has played, including the last five straight. He has made only $24,590, barely enough to cover the expenses.

A decent check here will help Beem add to his already juiced-up car stereo in his Ford Explorer or think about paying back the group of 30 sponsors back in El Paso who gave him "$70,000-$80,000" to come on tour.

"I'm out here trying to make money so I can get more stuff in my car," said Beem.

Pavin, meanwhile, is trying to restart his once sparkling career. After winning the Open at Shinnecock Hills four years ago with a memorable 4-wood approach on the 72nd hole, Pavin won once more -- the following year at Colonial -- before taking a nosedive.

After finishing fourth on the money list in 1995 and 18th in 1996, making more than a quarter of his career $8 million in the process, Pavin plummeted to 169th in 1997 and was 155th last year. He started to play better toward the end of last year and has started to see better results this year, with two Top 10 finishes.

In the process he completely reworked his swing, which went from quirky early in his career to solid later on but was never considered textbook. Not one to spend much time on the practice range before his slump, Pavin found himself hitting up to 200 balls after rounds trying to find the answer.

"I never thought I was hitting my head against the wall for no reason, I was hitting my head against the wall for a reason," said Pavin, who will turn 40 in November. "So it was certainly frustrating. Right now it looks like it is turning around."

Yesterday's round was more typical of the kind Pavin used to play. Always one of the tour's best short-game players, Pavin made a 50-footer for birdie on the 622-yard second hole -- "Tapped it in," he joked -- and closed with a 25-footer for birdie on the par-4 18th.

It was saving par on the par-4 16th hole that might have saved Pavin's round from falling apart. After hitting his approach into a collection area behind the green, Pavin seemingly had little chance of getting his next shot near the pin. But he hit an 8-iron into the embankment, then made a 12-footer for par.

"It was one of those nightmare places to be in," said Pavin. "I thought about hitting a 6-iron, 8-iron, sand wedge, a wedge, a putter. I mean I went through the whole list of what I can do. It was really close to being right next to the hole."

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