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There were no bars on the windows at Magnolia Hi-Fi, though it certainly felt that way to Rich Beem. This was where, beginning in September of 1995, he did eight months of hard time in the straight world, a prisoner to a time clock and the whims of the buying public. Tucked into the plush Seattle burb of Bellevue, in the shadow of the Microsoft campus, Magnolia is a high-end playground for wired stock-option millionaires and overprivileged teenagers, and though these weren't exactly Beem's people, he made a clear connection with them. Beem sold cell phones. Lots of them. Not that Beem knew that much about selling phones. He had wandered into Magnolia one day on a lark, seduced by the promise that he could make up to $25,000 a year, at seven dollars an hour plus commission. "That was the most money I'd ever heard of," he says. "I walked into my interview and said, 'Hey, I can barely dial a phone let alone explain one, but I promise you I can sell anything to anyone.'"
Beem had drifted into Seattle along with his fiancée, Tanya Thie, who had transferred to Western Washington University to finish her undergraduate studies. "I always told Tanya I would follow her anywhere," says Beem, and so he did. Thie was a firecracker, a knockout brunette with a sharp tongue and salty sense of humor, her excess of spunk owing to having grown up with nine brothers. Beem loved her tragically, but his move to Seattle was about a lot more than Thie. Beem was running away -- from his frustrations on the golf course, from his father, Larry, a brooding presence whose legend had lorded over his life, and from too many drunken nights spent pissing away a life's potential. Come to think of it, Beem had been running for most of his life.
When Beem was eleven the family had moved to Panama, part of a string of far-flung jobs that Larry took running the golf courses at various military installations. In two and a half years Rich never made any friends in Panama, but he did join the track team, running everything from the eight hundred meters to the ten kilometers. "It was the one thing I could do by myself," he says. Golf is a favorite sport of loners, too, but Beem resisted. "That was my dad's deal," he says. On the rare occasions when Larry Beem was able to drag his son to the course, Rich's potential was eye-popping. "Because of Larry I grew up around golf, and I've seen more than my share of golfers," says Rich's mother, Diana Pompeo. "I've never seen anyone pick up the game as easily as Rich."
After Panama the Beems -- Rich, his parents, and two older sisters -- landed in Berlin, while the Wall was still standing. Having grown out of what he calls his "dork" phase, Rich began running with the cool crowd at Berlin American High School. The drinking age in Berlin was only sixteen, and though Rich was still a few years shy of it, he and his buddies partied like rock stars. Rich also started hanging around Berlin Golf and Country Club, where his father was head pro, not to visit with the old man but to score pocket money. Larry would cover all of his son's bets, and the soldiers playing hooky from the nearby base were easy marks. Beem was talked into playing for the Berlin American High golf team as a freshman and sophomore, and both years he breezed to victory at the countrywide championship of Defense Department high schools. But Beem was booted off the golf team following the first tournament of his junior year, after getting caught pounding beers on a train ride home. This practically left him doing jumping jacks. Not being able to play meant not being judged by his father's withering standards.
Ah, but if only it were so easy to escape one's DNA. Larry Beem's son simply had too much natural talent to give up on golf, or have the game give up on him. For Rich's senior year in high school the family moved back to Las Cruces, New Mexico, the town where he had been born. (Larry was now running the golf course at White Sands Missile Base.) After the old man made a few phone calls Rich wound up with a scholarship to play for New Mexico State in Las Cruces. There was no hiding from his dad there, for Larry had been NMSU's first golf All-American in 1964, and was memorialized in an oversized poster that hung in the school's on-campus Hall of Fame.
There were times on the golf course, occasionally, when Rich lived up to his father's expectations. At the 1993 New Mexico State Amateur Championship he shot a final round 68, in forty-mile-per-hour winds, to win by six strokes. "If the tournament had gone another nine holes he would have won by twelve, and if it had gone another fifty-four he would have won by one hundred," says Larry. "It was blowing a hurricane but he was just relentless, fearless, aggressive. That was the first time Rich ever showed me he could play."
Rich, of course, found a way of running from those kinds of expectations. Juárez, Mexico, was but a quick car ride from Las Cruces. A border town teeming with vice and mice, in Juárez you only had to be eighteen to drink, which Beem often did. He never won a collegiate tournament at New Mexico State, never even really threatened to, but Beem did collect plenty of stories, like the time when he got his ear pierced on one of Juárez's grungy sidewalks. His sister Tina's then-husband simply snatched an earring from his bride, sterilized it with tequila, and slammed it into Beem's ear. "It was hilarious," says Tina.
Following college, in April of 1994, Beem lit out of Las Cruces for Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where, thanks to the connections of a college girlfriend, he had lined up a job as an assistant pro at Westward Ho Country Club. "All I knew about Sioux Falls was that it was somewhere else," he says. "I wanted to get the hell out of Las Cruces, New Mexico. I didn't care where I was going." After thirty years Larry and Diana's marriage was falling apart. As always, it was easiest for Rich just to run away.
Tanya Thie worked in the grillroom at Westward Ho. Their first date was at a pseudo-French restaurant, and they were engaged less than a year later. Beem only occasionally teed it with the boys from the Westward Ho pro shop, but when he did he made a lasting impression. Says Jeff Brecht, the club's head pro, "There is a lot of professional golf up in this part of the world -- maybe not the PGA Tour, but there are a lot of fine players, and they all pass through Westward Ho. I can tell you Rich had the most God-given talent of any player I've ever seen. The game just came so easy for him, or so it seemed. Everytime we'd play I'd tell Rich, 'You don't belong here. You need to go test yourself against some real competition.'"
Beem eventually took the advice. Following his first summer at Westward Ho, in 1994, he blazed out of Sioux Falls to roll the dice on the Silver State Tour, a micro-minitour that snakes across Nevada. Beem won his very first tournament, in Henderson, Nevada. After opening with a 73 he had gone out in 35 the next day when a monsoon hit. With half of the fifty-four holes complete, the tournament was called and Beem earned a cheap victory, not to mention $1,650. Things went steadily downhill from there, as Beem struggled with his game and his emotions. Two thirds of the way through the season, in February of 1995, Beem and Thie were engaged, and a wedding date was set for the following September. It was a bipolar existence, the hardships of playing golf for a living contrasted with the comforts of being at home with Thie. "I was a mess," says Beem. "I didn't want to be on the road. Half of it was I wasn't playing well, the other half was that being with her made me so much happier. I was young and immature about a lot of things. It was hard to focus on golf." In the summer of 1995 Beem felt compelled to give golf one more chance. He allowed himself a half dozen tournaments on the Dakotas Tour, but his heart wasn't in it.
After two years of studying psychology at the University of Nebraska, Thie, too, was looking for a change of scenery. "Rich and I both grew up landlocked," she says. "We thought it would be nice to be near the water." For Beem this qualified as a cogent plan. At Thie's insistence, he vowed to give up competitive golf and they moved to Seattle, settling into a small apartment at 30th and Avalon. "It had a great view of Puget Sound," says Beem.
From the time Beem arrived in Seattle he refused to allow himself to play a single round of golf, and he rarely let on about his past in the sport. A notable exception came during Magnolia Hi-Fi orientation, when Beem participated in a getting-to-know-you game where he had to tell two truths and a lie, and his coworkers tried to discern which was which. Beem said: 1) I lived overseas for seven years; 2) I have a six-year-old son named Jacob; and 3) I used to be a professional golfer. Taking stock of Beem -- five foot eight and an assless 150 pounds -- not one among the forty or so people in attendance believed Beem had ever been a professional golfer.
Maybe Beem didn't believe anymore, either. He had plunged into the domestic life with a vengeance. Beem would set up shop in the kitchen of his apartment and whip up the Mexican dishes that were (and are) the cornerstone of his diet -- enchiladas, tacos, a killer bean dip. Tanya's nephew Corey Thie had come to Seattle to live with the betrothed, taping up a sheet to close off the den to make a tiny living space, and he soon picked up a job bartending at a trendy nightclub, 2218. Rich and Tanya frequently came by to drink on the house, and together they explored Seattle's vibrant music scene. Occasionally they would go sailing on the Sound with David Wyatt, a Magnolia Hi-Fi colleague who had a twenty-seven-foot sailboat named Xocomil, after the Mayan god of wind. "I thought I was happy," says Beem. "I fell so hard for Tanya. I thought she was the be-all, end-all. I thought being with her was all I had ever wanted, and would ever want."
Others weren't so sure, including Tanya. "For as long as I'd known Rich he wasn't happy unless he was playing golf," she says. "Even if he was unhappy because he had played bad, he was still happy. You know what I mean? Deep down I think he knew that's what he belonged doing, but it was so hard for him to admit it. I'm sure that had something to do with his relationship with his dad."
Though Beem wouldn't let himself play eighteen holes, it was clear he was still in the grip of the game. "He wouldn't go to the course, but he always had a club in his hand around the apartment," says Corey Thie. "He was forever checking his grip, checking his swing in the mirror, that kind of thing." From their second-floor balcony to the edge of Puget Sound was a carry of a couple hundred yards at least, all of it over a bustling industrial complex attached to the port. Beem used to delight in launching drives off the balcony, trying to reach the water.
On Easter Sunday in 1996 something finally snapped inside of Beem. He spent the better part of the weekend screaming at his TV, watching the PGA Tour's BellSouth Classic. Paul Stankowski was in contention. Stankowski had gone to the University of Texas-El Paso, a mere thirty miles from New Mexico State's campus, and Beem had always counted him as both a friend and a healthy rival. By 1996 Stankowski was in his third full year on tour and showing considerable promise. At BellSouth he shot a final round 71 to force a playoff with Tour veteran Brandel Chamblee, and then birdied the first extra hole to win it. The victory was worth $234,000 to Stankowski and an immeasurable amount to Beem. That afternoon he went sailing with Wyatt, who was quickly becoming his best friend. It was just the two of them, and after a spin around the Sound, Beem grew reflective.
"David," he said, "I think I feel like playing golf again."
In his first round of golf since landing in Seattle, Beem played in only 2 over par, and that was all it took to push him off the wagon. Overnight he began bingeing on the game, in whatever form was available -- the driving range over lunch, a quick nine holes after work, and thirty-six-holes-a-day benders on the weekend. Predictably, Beem's relationship with Tanya began fracturing almost immediately. A scant three weeks after that first fateful round, Thie suggested she get her own apartment and that they take a little break. "Tanya was very clear it wasn't a breakup, just a break," says Beem, but Thie still returned the engagement ring. It was supposed to be symbolic -- Beem was going to slip it back onto her finger again when they were both ready. But with Thie going in her own direction Beem decided to do the same. The day after getting the rock back Beem quit at Magnolia Hi-Fi and began tuning up for another run at the Dakotas Tour. "I just had to know," he says.
Beem played seven tournaments in as many weeks up in the Dakotas, making the cut in all seven, and finished second in a triumphant homecoming in Sioux Falls. But while he was falling in love with golf, maybe for the first time, Thie was rapidly falling out of love with him. By the middle of the summer "her tune had changed completely," says Beem. "One day, out of the blue, she says, 'I don't think this is going to work.' I was like, 'Excuse me?'"
Says Thie, "It's a hard thing, to follow a golfer around. It's not a stable life, and it's not what I wanted. Hats off to him, but it's not how I envisioned my life." By the summer of 1996 Thie was well on her way to a bachelor of arts in human services, with a minor in counseling, and was volunteering at a group home for disenfranchised youth.
"As Rich once put it, 'She wanted to save the world and all he wanted was to save par,'" says Larry Beem. "They just didn't understand each other after a while." One person with whom Thie connected was a fellow volunteer at the group home, whom she would eventually marry. By the time Beem returned home from the Dakotas Tour to pick up his stuff in early September, "There was a closet full of this other guy's clothes," says Beem. "I fuckin' freaked. Total meltdown." Beem called his friend and colleague Wyatt and they found a quiet slice of shoreline along the Sound and proceeded to pump hundreds of purloined range balls into the water.
"Thank God for David," says Beem. "Without him I might have wound up at the bottom of Puget Sound, too."
David Wyatt grew up in Alexandria, Minnesota, a tiny town in the state's central lakes region, 130 miles from Minneapolis. When he was three years old his dad skipped out on the family and was never heard from again. When he was five he was molested by a baby-sitter. "I was basically programmed at an early age to be fucked up," Wyatt says with a hard, little laugh. When he was eight Wyatt got high for the first time, and he says, "It was like, 'This is the answer to my life right here.' To this day that was the best experience of my life. It was the most peace I've ever felt." By nine he was actively using a cornucopia of drugs. "I liked speed and Valium, but I wasn't picky," he says. Wyatt dropped out of school after ninth grade; by then he was in and out of foster homes and often living on the streets. At fourteen he got his GED while, he says, "a guest of the state of Minnesota." And what was he arrested for?
"You want the whole list, or just the partial?"
By fifteen Wyatt was sober but still living like a junkie, stealing to survive. He would often disappear for months at a time on wild hitchhiking jags across the country -- by the time he was sixteen Wyatt had visited forty-seven of the lower forty-eight states. "How I missed Pennsylvania," he says, "I'll never understand." Wyatt spent one long night on the road picking the brain of his ride, a gent who happened to install security systems for a living. After that, breaking and entering became a way of life. That is, until, "The state of Minnesota was kind enough to correct my wayward path," he says.
Beginning when he was seventeen, Wyatt spent two and a half years incarcerated or in halfway houses, and upon his release he got tangled up with a woman eight years his senior, the daughter of one of Alexandria's most prominent families. "She was an alcoholic, I was in recovery, it was all part of the charm," Wyatt says. They were married in October of 1984, and divorced eight months later. In the interim a daughter, Cady, was born, and Wyatt earned his certificate of chemical dependency counseling. He was thrilled to finally have some decent job prospects -- to that point he had already worked as a beekeeper, fishing guide, tire repairman, cook, waiter, motor boat repairman, and construction worker.
Wyatt spent the next ten years wandering, living like the Unabomber in a tent in Helena, Montana, spending a year exploring Guatemala, where he became a vegetarian and embraced meditation, and along the way working at various counseling outposts to earn pocket money. In September of 1995 he somehow washed ashore at Magnolia Hi-Fi, where during orientation he told the following two truths and a lie: 1) he had ridden a motorcyle at 178 miles per hour; 2) he had been to forty-seven of the lower forty-eight by the time he was sixteen and 3) he had a six-year-old son named Jacob.
After bonding at that orientation it took little time for Wyatt and Beem to become friends, and accomplices. "It was definitely pandemonium when they were around," says Bobby McCory, a coworker at Magnolia Hi-Fi. "They were quite a combo -- like powerful opposite forces that somehow kept the other in check." Beem and Wyatt used to delight in cranking up the display stereos to ear-splitting volumes, and they quickly developed a language so dense with inside jokes and obscure references that customers had no idea when they were being made fun of, which was often.
Nevertheless, "If it weren't for strippers, we wouldn't be best friends," says Wyatt. "Maybe buddies, but not the blood brothers we are now." It seems that during his Magnolia days Wyatt was dating a dancer at Club Déjà Vu. "She was the love of my life," he says. "She was my Tanya." One night, while hanging out at the club, Wyatt had "the big one," the kind of blowup that signals the end of any relationship. Wyatt stormed out of Club Déjà Vu and jumped in his car. Sensing the gravity of the situation Beem followed him outside, and, uninvited, parked himself in the passenger seat. "Rich was afraid I might kill myself, and I probably would have," says Wyatt. Without so much as a word Wyatt raced out of the parking lot driving like a madman, and after running a series of red lights he finally pulled over, screaming at Beem to "fuck off and get the fuck out of my car." Says Wyatt, "I was shaking, crying, and Rich grabbed my hand and touched my heart. He said he wasn't going to leave me, no matter what I said or did. It was a very special thing for him to make himself so vulnerable like that. When I finally cooled down I said, 'From this day forward you and I are forever best friends,' and that's exactly how it's worked out."
After collecting his things at his old apartment Beem crashed with Wyatt for a spell, assessing his options, such as they were. He finally accepted what everyone else had known all along: "The only thing I really knew, the only thing I was special at, was golf," he says. His dad made a few phone calls and, per usual, Rich was taken care of, this time in the form of a job offer at El Paso Country Club, just down the road from Las Cruces. The assistant pro position didn't pay much, but Beem could work on his game, and, more importantly, start right away. After a lifetime of running away -- from golf, from his dad, from Las Cruces -- Beem was heading home, to the life he never wanted.
Copyright © 2001, 2003 by Alan Shipnuck