Some birdies change the course of a round. Some change the course of a tournament. And some — an admittedly small number — change the course of golf history.
Rich Beem has a birdie to thank for keeping Tiger Woods from a 16th career major championship. At least, he claims as much to be true. But the timing of Beem’s birdie didn’t come late on a Sunday afternoon, nor did it drive a dagger into the heart of Woods’ odds of winning the tournament.
Rather, Beem’s birdie came on Saturday — the 54th hole — of the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine. In the moment, the birdie meant precious little — cutting Justin Leonard’s lead from four strokes to three — but as Beem explained on GOLF’s Subpar Podcast, in hindsight, it was that birdie that made all the difference.
“I made an 8-10 footer on the 18th green on Saturday to get into the final group with Justin Leonard,” Beem recalled to hosts Colt Knost and Drew Stoltz. “That was probably the biggest putt of the week for me.”
And why was that the case? Well, because Beem’s birdie changed his final-round pairing. By making the eight-footer, Beem found himself in Sunday’s final pairing alongside Leonard. Had he missed … he would’ve been paired with none other than Tiger Woods, clad in Sunday Red.
Looking back now, Beem can’t help but view that birdie putt as the decisive moment in his first (and only) major championship victory, which came the following day. Adding the best player in the world to the pressure of contending for the first time at a major would’ve been far too much for the then-32-year-old pro to handle.
“Absolutely, there’s no doubt [it was a blessing to avoid Tiger],” Beem said. “If I had missed it, I would have been four back of Justin, but I was only three back going in on Sunday. But four back or three back going in on Sunday, it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Of course, Beem would go on to shoot 68 on Sunday at Hazeltine, leapfrogging Leonard atop the leaderboard and eventually outlasting a valiant effort from Tiger to win by just a single stroke. Not only did Saturday’s round-ending birdie help to keep Beem in a different pairing, it also game him the wiggle room to stand on the 18th green with three putts to win the tournament. Beem would do just that — a tap-in for bogey that cemented his place in golf history.
If not for that Saturday birdie, Beem doesn’t know what would have happened, but he can tell you with perfect clarity what wouldn’t.
“My life would have been completely different,” he said. “I wouldn’t have won.”
To hear the rest of Beem’s Subpar interview, check out the video below.