The date was May 30, 1999.
I had just finished my freshman year in university and was getting ready for some summer school. It was already smoking hot in Arizona by lunch time that Sunday. I decided to chill and watch the last round of that week’s PGA Tour event, the Kemper Open.
An unknown rookie was leading. Intrigued, I listened to Ken Venturi carefully. The story was unique: Rich Beem had quit playing golf and was selling car stereos four years before leading this event. With the back nine to play, the odds were against him. But he had a good, experienced caddie on the bag: Steve Duplantis. Between shots, we could see Beem drinking this pink stuff, Pepto Bismol. Duplantis bought a few bottles the night before, expecting “Beemer” to be stressed all day long with an upset stomach.
On the 16th hole, Venturi mentioned that Rich’s dad, Larry Beem, was currently the golf coach at New Mexico State University. That clearly got my attention. As I was getting ready to play my sophomore year at Scottsdale Community College, my mind was already focusing on where I would transfer to for my junior and senior years. My love for Arizona and for my American host family made me realize that I did not want to go too far away. And since I couldn’t get a full athletic scholarship at either ASU or U of A, I took NMSU’s consideration seriously. I watched Rich winning that Kemper Open and drove straight to the nearest course to hit balls until dark. And from that point, I always followed Rich’s career.
The fall semester of 1999 at SCC was beyond a lot of fun! The entire golf team — with players from South Africa, Sweden, England and from all over the U.S. — were living in the same apartment complex, not far from school and just across a massive driving range where we could practice for free. Moreover, our coach could get us tee times at pretty much any course in Scottsdale. We had free golf clubs from PING, and my French accent was rock’n and rollin’ on campus with the ladies. I was living the dream.
In February 2000, I sent my golf CV along with a 2-minute video on DVD to three different universities’ golf coaches: NMSU, UC-Santa Barbara and to the University of Hawaii… making an exception on location… because I thought it’d be pretty cool to play golf on a full ride there and study on the beach.
Exactly two days later, Larry Beem called me at the flat. Since he was coming to Scottsdale the following week to visit his son, Rich, it was the perfect opportunity to meet up. The rendezvous was at Talking Stick Golf Club, mid-afternoon. Larry and I talked for about 20 minutes over a soda and then headed to the range.
At that time, I was literally flushing it. Off to the course we went and after 9 holes, I was 4 under, having not missed one fairway and having birdie chances on every green. Larry asked me to follow him to his car. He had the papers ready. Full-scholarship. I didn’t think twice and signed straight up. We shook hands, and I told him that I’d come up to visit soon in New Mexico. I drove back to the flat with some Metallica songs blasting on the radio and I was screaming the lyrics. That done deal meant a lot. Back at the flat, I couldn’t wait to share the news with the lads.
I opened the door and one of my roommates said that I had a phone call… it was the coach from Hawaii. So I called him back. There was one spot available on his team — a full ride. Too late. Oh well. Honolulu or Las Cruces?
You know where the best green enchiladas are…
Two weeks later I headed to NMSU for a 2-day visit. Larry had a golf game planned. Himself, Rich, the current No. 1 on the team and myself. It was the first time that Rich and I met. I was so pumped on the first tee that I overdrove him by 40 yards!!! … because the ball landed on the cart path just left of the fairway.
I had an 8-iron into that par 5, hit it to 20 feet and holed it for eagle. But Rich birdied the next four to make a statement. I remember precisely asking him: “What makes the difference between a successful mini-tour player and a PGA Tour winner?”
He replied, “That’s easy Frenchy! FULL COMMITMENT TO EVERY SINGLE SHOT!”
That evening I stayed at Larry’s house and that’s when he told me that his lifetime hero was French movie star Jean Gabin. Larry had all his movies in DVD, in French, subtitled in English. Straight away I realized that being French helped my case for the scholarship.
I moved to Las Cruces in January 2001. And Rich moved there shortly after to be closer to his dad. Yes: a PGA Tour player living in Las Cruces, an hour-away from El Paso Airport: more proof that anything is possible. But hey… these green enchiladas are really tasty!
When Rich had weeks off from the Tour, we’d catch up. I loved listening to his stories, or play a few holes with him, but on my side, my golf game started to deteriorate severely…
I was in love, madly in love, and engaged to a French girl, Céline, who was coming to live with me in New Mexico in August 2001.
At the conference championships in May 2001, I had told coach that I couldn’t play anymore for the team. My mind wasn’t there, I was frustrated and shooting bad scores. So I gave up my scholarship and accepted the consequences of that move. In the fall semester of 2001, I was taking 18 credits at school, with 3 jobs, and working on this relationship. Being a Sports Journalism major, I wrote for a newspaper, I was a photographer and I worked at a TV station. The average amount of sleep per night ran from 3-4 hours, max.
A few months later, in March 2002, Céline and I broke up and she went back to France. I took a fourth job, as a translator French to English, for a few teachers on campus, to pay the bills. It was hell, but I had to hang on. Giving up on school was simply not an option — had to get this degree. And so one day I drove to Larry’s house to ask him if it’d be possible to meet up there every Sunday to watch the last round of PGA Tour events, flip some burgers on the grill, have a cocktail or two and watch a Jean Gabin movie. Thankfully, coach loved the idea. And looking back, those Sundays at coach’s house is what kept me going. It was like recharging the batteries for another week of intense and not fun work.
In the summer of 2002, I decided to stay for summer school. And our Sunday routines didn’t change. Larry had seen Rich for a few days in late July and told me when he got back that he’d never seen Rich play this well. He was hitting it longer, straighter and the confidence started to build up.
If you’ve never seen the last round of the 2002 International at Castle Pines in Colorado, then please find a way to see it. To me, it has to be the all-time most entertaining and unpredictable last round in PGA Tour history.
After this incredible win, Rich played the PGA Championship two weeks later at Hazeltine. And the rest is history.
When Rich found himself leading after the first 36 holes, Larry and I did not miss one shot of the weekend. On the Sunday morning, I went to a Walmart to buy four bottles of Pepto Bismol for coach, because I knew that he’d be stressed all day long. He laughed, saying he’d save these, but after Beemer holed on bomb for birdie on 16 to get a 2-shot lead with two to go, Larry downed one bottle of this disgusting-looking and tasting stuff like a tequila shot!
When Rich holed the winning putt on the last, tears started flowing like Czech beer flows back home in Prague in the beer gardens. Witnessing Larry’s joy for his son to win a major championship is a moment I will cherish forever. Simply no words can describe this.
The fall of 2002 was my last semester at school. That Sunday routine with coach didn’t change. And as I approached the graduation date, I realized how much I was going to miss Larry and our Sundays together. He told me that he would not attend the ceremony. But he asked me to stop by the house one day, diploma in hand, to have a celebratory cocktail and watch one more Jean Gabin movie. I stopped by on January 2, 2003, one day before driving a U-Haul with all my stuff and towing my car back to Scottsdale where I’d live for the next two years. It was the last time Larry and I shared a moment together.
Larry and I would call each other often during those two years. And then in early 2005, I went back to Europe.
I started caddying full-time on the European Tour in May 2006, and at The Open in 2008 at Royal Birkdale, Rich and I caught up, which was fun.
In 2012, Beemer played on the European Tour, as it was his last year of eligibility from his 10-year exemption for winning the PGA. He was excited. New events, new courses, new countries, different cultures… and we’d catch up a lot more from then on.
In June, during a week off, Rich, his wife Sarah and their two children came to Prague for a holiday. I felt so proud to show them around this incredible city where I had chosen to live and I could see that they loved it the same way I do. We’d go to a different micro-brewery every day and then watch soccer matches on big screens downtown as it was the Euro Championships then.
On the Saturday, we went for a lunch to a place behind my flat which has the most breathtaking view in Prague. The weather was sublime, we were trying a couple of different beers and then Beemer got the idea to call Larry back in Las Cruces. Best idea ever. It felt so good laughing together again… probably seven years had gone by since I had last heard his voice… but unfortunately, this would be the last time that we’d have a chat.
Larry Beem passed away on September 26, 2015.
All of us have people who genuinely help us find our right path in life. It can be family members, close friends, sports teammates, neighbors, sports coaches. Without Larry’s ability to be an amazing listener, I clearly would have not achieved what I had achieved during my time in New Mexico. He was my confidant, my best friend there.
As Beemer started commentating many events on the European Tour for Sky Sports in 2015, we’d catch up the same way when he played in 2012. And somehow, I always felt that I’d caddie for him one week someday.
So when Beemer called me about four weeks ago to loop for him at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, I felt and knew already that this would be a very special week.
And indeed it was!
That 30 on the back nine Friday to make the cut on the number was just phenomenal. Five birdies in the last six holes… what were the odds of that? Probably higher than winning the Mega Millions Lottery! And that birdie-birdie finish on Sunday was the perfect “icing on the cake” for priceless memories.
I can’t thank Beemer enough for having me as his caddie this past week. He’s just a great bloke. Just like his dad was.
And that is what I appreciate the most in him: YES he is a major champion, which countless professional golfers dream of being someday, but most importantly — Rich has pure and total loyalty from his family and close friends.
When I observe many young and talented golfers nowadays, I sometimes feel that their obsession for the game and for getting better every day takes them away, with ignorance, to what is truly important in life. Sad, but true.
It’s crazy to realize that if I had not sat down to watch the last round of the 1999 Kemper Open, most probably none of this would have occurred, but hey, thankfully everything happens for a reason.
Because of this last week spent together, our friendship grew stronger and I hope that within the next few months Beemer and I will go play the NMSU Golf Course, just like the first day we met: with fun and plenty of shit-talking.
And, of course, we’ll do what’s best to do in Las Cruces: eat green enchiladas!