Rich Beem defied a typically swashbucklingTiger Woods charge to capture his first Major Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. The 31 year old stared Woods in the face and produced a stirring performance to edge the World Number One into the runner-up spot by a single stroke after closing with a round of 68 for a ten under par total of 278.
Woods, who started the final round two behind Beem and five adrift of 54-hole leader, Justin Leonard, closed within one shot of the man from El Paso in Texas after eight holes as Leonard dropped out of contention.
But the Championship was truly ignited over the back nine as Woods and Beem, who once sold mobile phones and stereos for a living, fought out an enthralling duel for supremacy.
As Vijay Singh of Fiji took the honours as the leading European Tour Member in eighth place after a final round of 68 for 287, one under par, the contest for the Wanamaker Trophy developed into a two-cornered fight between Beem and Woods.
After Woods made made his initial surge, Beem struck a potentially telling blow when he sent a three wood 271 yards at the long 11th and holed the resultant seven foot putt for an eagle three.
With Woods, who reached the turn in 33 with a flawless display, three putting from close range at the 13th, suddenly a five stroke gap opened between the two principals and a further bogey at the 14th appeared to put paid to Woods's challenge.
However Woods has never laid down his weapons without a fight and he delivered a stunning finish by birdieing the last four holes with the courage of a true champion to keep the heat on an opponent who appeared to have the title safely under lock and key.
It was gripping theatre between Beem, playing in his fourth Major Championship, and Woods, who was chasing down the ninth of his meteoric career. After those two uncharacteristic blips, Woods found his range and rolled in four consecutive birdie putts from inside 12 feet.
However Beem refused to buckle and made the decisive play at Hazeltine’s signature hole, the treacherous 16th, by holing from 30 feet for a birdie three to ensure than even Woods’s heroics were in vain. He then parred the dangerous 17th and allowed himself the luxury of three putting from long distance at the last to take the title just a couple of weeks after winning the International Tournament.
“Seven years ago I could never have dreamed of this” admitted Beem, who gave up the game to become a salesman, but decided to return in 1996 after drawing inspiration from the victory of former college friend, Paul Stankowski, who won that year’s BellSouth Classic.
He took up a job as an assistant professional but decided to try his luck in the 1998 US PGA Tour Qualifying School, where he claimed his card and went on to win the Kemper Open the following season.
He added: “I had no expectations. This is unbelievable. I was the first player out here on Monday morning to see the course and I couldn’t have expected this by any stretch of the imagination. The birdie putt at the 16th was the key but on that tee my focus was stronger than it had been all week. At that moment the nerves hit me.”
However they didn’t prevent him capturing that first Major, and fourth position on the US PGA Tour Money List with $2,633,722. Woods, though, was left reflecting on the back to back bogeys which cost him the chance to lift a third US PGA Championship.
“I didn’t trust my instincts over the first putt at the 13th and made two bad swngs at the 14th” he said. “I decided to block it out and move on. My focus then was to birdie my way in, which I did. It matters to be that I finished the correct way.”
Singh also finished with a flourish, his round of 68 moving him to eighth while four other European Tour Members finished in tied tenth place, Sergio Garcia matching Singh’s 68 for a one over par total of 289. Also on that mark were Argentinians, José Coceres and Ricardo Gonzalez, who shot 74 and 71 respectively and Ryder Cup rookie, Pierre Fulke of Sweden who showed a welcome return to form.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, battling against a neck problem which restricted his movement and handicapped further by a seven at the seventh, finished strongly with two birdies in the last five holes to ensure a place in the top 20.
“I am delighted to have finished at all. I didn’t think I would play more than one hole yesterday” said Harrington, while Gonzalez was equally thrilled with his debut performance in an American Major Championship.
He commented: “It was a very good tournament for me. I came here to try and make the cut, so to finish in the top ten is better than I expected. My putter was working very good all week.”
Justin Rose of England, also competing his first US Major, ended an enjoyable week tied for 23rd with Michael Campbell, Retief Goosen, Bernhard Langer and Adam Scott on 292, four over par. Rose said: “I said I wanted a top 20 finish and just missed out. I will remember the whole experience.”