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The Man Riding Clouds

Peter Beames has brushed shoulders with Palmer and Spieth, taught all over the world, dealt with poverty and homelessness and somehow keeps happily floating along.

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1

One Sunday afternoon in 1981, at the conclusion of the Australian Open, Peter Beames bumped into Gary Player outside the locker room at Victoria Golf Club. Player, the nine-time major champion, had just finished third, and Beames, the one-time major participant (the ’74 Open Championship—Player won by four), had just wrapped up a stint as a color commentator and was looking forward to his next start.

“Where are you off to next, Pete?” Player asked Beames.

“Well, I think I’m going to New Zealand…”

And that’s when something shifted in Player’s face.

Beames had met Player 13 years earlier, in 1968, at a tournament outside Durban, South Africa, where the 21-year-old Beames was, he says today, such a nuisance on the driving range, “trying to outwork Gary, but messing up his practice by spraying balls everywhere,” that Player asked one of his coaches to give Beames money for lunch and supper if he’d just stay the hell out of his way.

Over those 13 subsequent seasons, Beames played professionally across the world. He was good, but never quite good enough. That first season in South Africa, he didn’t qualify for a single field. Eventually, thanks to blind determination and the generous counsel of the golfing kings of his day (“Bobby Locke showed me the secret to putting,” he says), he found his footing—moving around the tours of Africa, Australia and Asia during the winter months before returning to Europe and the United Kingdom, his home, each summer.

In 1970, Beames led the Australian Dunlop International after 36 holes—a career highlight at that point—for which he made newspaper headlines around the world and was paired with Arnold Palmer and Player on the weekend. (“I said I wanted to be the greatest golfer in the world. And of course everybody laughed at me,” he remembers. “But, for 24 hours, I was.”) Through the 1970s, he grinded across the globe. He didn’t win events, but he was there. In ’70, Beames and Player began espousing a method called the “walk-thru”—a move you may never have heard of, but know intuitively if you’ve ever seen Player swing a golf club. Beames never quite hit as a competitive golfer, but he was always in the orbit of the true giants of his day: Locke and Thomson, Jacklin and Charles, Ballesteros and Trevino, Palmer and Nicklaus. And none more than Player. Player was always there to lend a hand, even appearing on the cover of Beames’ one instructional book, Walk-Thru to Par. But in 1981, it was a different kind of help—a hard truth—that Player offered him:

“Pete, it’s time you finally consider stopping.”

That is, quit professional golf. Give up the dream that had motivated Beames since he was a boy (Irish by birth, raised in northwest England) to be the best golfer who ever lived. He wasn’t, Player reminded him, making any money at all. Beames had come to South Africa in ’68 with little, made little and had barely stayed afloat the last 13 years. He had lived on the edge for so long, leaping from lily pad to lily pad, tournament to tournament, showing up and figuring out the logistics only once he arrived. He had failed brilliantly, but he had also gotten closer than anyone could’ve reasonably imagined, given his natural talent. “To force your way upon a game you were no good at,” he says now, “it’s an amazing thing.” But this, Player was letting him know in 1981, was surely the end of the road.

A few weeks later, Beames was indeed in Wellington, playing in the New Zealand Open, where he was paired for the last 36 holes with Jack Newton. That week, Beames says, “I conquered the game, because I shot 71-71-72-71. That consistency—that’s conquering the game for me.”

After the final round, Beames was in the locker room, and he suddenly felt all alone. From nowhere, he heard a voice: “It’s the end.” He looked around, spooked, then heard it again: “It’s the end. It’s over.”

There was no one around. It was just a sign, he reasoned, from “the other dimension to this universe.” As he was getting ready to leave, the door opened unexpectedly, and there was, Beames says, this black outline with the sun coming in behind it. “Beamesy, come and have a beer, mate.” It was Newton, a star player who couldn’t stand him, Beames says, but who’d at long last invited him for a beer: “I’d died and gone to heaven.” Beames had reached the summit. He’d conquered the game. He knew for sure then. It really was over.

So what? Don’t 100 great but not-great-enough golfers put an end to their dreams every single day? Sure, but that would misunderstand this as an ending to the story rather than a beginning—and underestimate the magnitude of what followed.

For Beames, it’s been a life full in ways that can exist only in golf. A life that has intersected at countless turns with stars of the game and notorious members of the mob and world-famous daredevils and fashion photographers in the desert—not to mention near death, near homelessness, hunger and poverty.

“Nobody has ever paid the price to play golf like I have,” he says. “You’re asking these questions about how it all connects, but you have to understand that most of it was just a question of survival.” 

2

I met Beames in the parking lot of an Irish pub in early June, in the way-upstate hamlet of Watertown, New York. Watertown is in summer an ocean of rolling fields and in winter a sea of snow. Beames has been coming there for the golf season for two decades, but the details surrounding his engagements are often fuzzy. He was, for a time, a teaching pro, the teaching pro, at one or a number of seasonal clubs serving the golfers of the greater Thousand Islands region. But as I followed him to wherever he was taking me that afternoon, it was unclear precisely what he was up to this summer.

As we drove, I had the impression that, besides Beames, there weren’t many other elements that lived in the Venn diagram overlap of Watertown, New York, and Oceanside, California, where he spends the other half of each year. Since his playing career ended, Beames has lived off and on in California, for years based in Leucadia, playing and teaching at La Costa Resort, bumming around on the beach, picking up teaching work here and there, working for a stint at Pebble Beach, and on and on. More recently he’s wound up in Oceanside, living as a sort of brand ambassador for first Ashworth, then Linksoul, which has put his image and wisdom and shot-making skills to work in any number of editorials and marketing materials. At Linksoul, they call him The Professor. His likeness appears on T-shirts and postcards and ball markers.

Even if you don’t know Beames’ name or story, you might recognize that likeness: the tweed paddy cap, the coat and tie, the high shoulders of undiminished pride. He looks like a character you’ve seen before, maybe in a midnight Golf Channel doc or in your mind’s eye while reading Golf in the Kingdom. I knew at once upon meeting Beames what Linksoul founders John Ashworth and Geoff Cunningham meant when they said that, in look and spirit, he embodies the Linksoul tag: “Pure golf.” I knew too that they let him sleep and work for many months each year in the upstairs office at Linksoul HQ in Oceanside.

This was on my mind as we pulled up to a large house on the outskirts of Watertown, where Beames parked not in the driveway, but on the street, and led me to the front door. There, I found a little Saturday-evening party. There were strangers. There were dogs. I had no clue where I was. Beames had invited me to “the house” for dinner, but did not mention that it was not, strictly speaking, his house. But given that he stayed there most nights during the summer months, of course it was kind of also his house. These are the tricky components. The Life of Beames is large, but it is also small. Though he has no home of his own, homeless is the wrong word, because he is, rather incredibly, many-homed.

His longtime host in Watertown is Johnny Spezzano, the local Top-40 DJ. They met 15 years ago the way so many people meet Beames: One moment they were standing next to each other, and the next they were talking. Spezzano doesn’t even golf much. But here was this vector, cast in from lands far and wide, with tales, with wisdom, without much money and rarely with a place to stay. This was the thing Beames had done forever: show up and figure out the particulars as he went. The universe had never let him down. That sort of living gives most people tremendous anxiety, but it was the only way he knew.

He’d done it when he first teed it up in South Africa. And then in Australia and New Zealand and Asia and the U.S. His playing days were like someone building the suspension bridge while on the train that was traversing the canyon. He tells story after story about misadventures in hitchhiking through southern Africa, of being nearly shot on the side of the highway between Cape Town and Bloemfontein, or being thrown in jail in Zambia and stung in the eye by a Portuguese man-of-war while swimming naked at night with two Australian women in Surfers Paradise (Locke’s eye surgeon to the rescue). There are so many stories that are right at the precipice of catastrophe, death, whatever, before some miracle comes through. Of somebody doing just enough for him, some fortune breaking, so that he’s able to get on to if not the next phase of his life, then at least the next day.

After telling a story about being at the Mandarin Hotel in Singapore, and riding into a free room on the coattails of a group of Americans he was in no way affiliated with, and waiting for his comeuppance when it came time to pay, only to be contacted, at the 11th hour, about some opportunity to teach golf for some giant amount of cash to the British rubber-plantation owners there, I stopped him: But how do you get to Singapore in the first place when you have no money? He didn’t hesitate. In that instance, it was some guy on a driving range who saw him hitting balls and then offered to sponsor him so he could keep competing, which meant a plane ticket to New Zealand, where the only way to get to the next event in Australia was to sell his extra set of Ping irons to an airplane pilot he happened to have met, who would swap the clubs for a ticket on his next flight to Australia. “I mean, that went on and on and on…” he said, summarizing an eternal life in golf in an efficient little ellipsis.

3

It may be introducing a spoiler to say that it never stopped going that way, eventually job to job to job in the U.S. He cleaned clubs at Princeton’s golf course. (“But I told people I went to Princeton.”) He partnered with members of organized crime at La Costa. (“They handed me the first $100 bills I’d ever seen.”) He faked his way into a job at Pebble Beach. (“I showed up on the range and pretended I worked there, and pretty soon people were paying me for lessons, and then they had to hire me.”) He picked up wealthy students here and there, gave talks to rooms of wealthier CEOs. (“I paraphrased some Churchill for them—‘Nev-uh in the course of human conflict have so many strokes been struck by so few…’—and the head of Merrill Lynch signed me up to go to Scotland to do another one on the spot.”) He just kept playing, he just kept teaching, he just kept hanging around, showing up and colliding with fate. “You think that because you’re old, you’ll not keep having new opportunities,” he says. “But the universe tends to, when you’ve done something, continue putting you in touch with these people.”

He cherishes his relationship with Xander Schauffele (the San Diego/Linksoul connection). He says he’s shared the secret to golf with Bryson DeChambeau (then gave the big guy a driver that Hogan had given to him). He recounts fondly a couple of rounds in Colorado with a teenage Jordan Spieth. (“I played with seven clubs, beat him, shot 69. I think he shot 71. And [Spieth] didn’t actually say this, but you could see that he wanted to say it: ‘Old man, be there tomorrow!’ We had the rematch, we tied. I got his autograph, and I said, ‘You’re gonna win the Masters.’ He looked at me quizzically, then said, ‘Yeah, eight times.’”)

Beames is the ultra version of a golfing type every golfer has come across. On the putting green of the busy muni. On the driving range at the high-end resort. The older gentleman who looks the look, walks the walk (if he can still walk) and has just enough juice left in his backswing (or, more likely, in his putting stroke) to still beat all comers. He claims to have met everyone, played with all those players from not just one generation ago, but two or three. And yet the stories always seem to prompt one question:

Really?

I asked him if people ever called bullshit on his stories. 

“Oh, God, yes, are you kidding?”

Fortunately for Beames, he kept his receipts. His father, an Irish lawyer and a member of the prosecution team at Nuremberg, taught him to never throw things away. And so: the great binder of validation. The photos and magazine clippings and printed leaderboards that temper—if not vanquish—the skepticism.

There he is with Peter Thomson. There he is with Locke. There he is in the newspaper, on the leaderboard just behind Snead (’74 Benson and Hedges) and Seve (’75 Dutch Open), or just ahead of Palmer and Jacklin (if only for just long enough for the morning edition to be printed). There is his book, Walk-Thru to Par, bound between two real hardcovers, with Player on the front, singing his praises. It’s all there.

Spezzano watched with pride as we flipped through the binder. He is Beames’ local angel and patron, as Ashworth and Cunningham are in Oceanside. He is a believer in Beames. He feeds him, gives him money, takes him out on his boat on the St. Lawrence River, puts a roof over his head for months at a time. What makes so many do so much? Especially while others question: Who is this freeloader? Beames often wonders: Why me? Admiration. Incredulity. Respect. Love. Spezzano has a tattoo of Beames on his forearm. The silhouette and the proud moniker: THE PROFESSOR. Beames seems a blessing in the life of those who host him, a mystical presence. “He’s our hero up here,” a party guest said. “He’s a living legend.” Spezzano added, “Not everybody can say their entire life they were part of golf”—putting words to at least one reason this single person is worth so much effort to protect.

Only golf creates characters like Peter Beames. But only golf (or maybe some religions, too—same difference) creates the sort of community that would keep a Peter Beames alive all these years.

4

Beames came to Watertown this spring without a commitment for a teaching job, as he sometimes does, and upon arriving at the Ives Hill Country Club, where he’s taught for the last decade, learned that the owner would not be opening this year. The owner, Beames says, agreed to mow the driving range every once in a while so that Beames could give lessons, but there wasn’t any other help around the course.

When we arrived, at dawn, Beames summarized his situation: “I have a golf course all to my own. A country club. I am the head pro of nothing.”

He pulled his car—gifted to him in California—into the parking spot nearest the clubhouse. The course, having grown in during the late weeks of spring, had a version of its own quarantine haircut, so shaggy it looked like a country meadow, like golf hadn’t been played there in a generation.

And yet here was a green, not far from the parking lot—the 18th green, it turned out, with a golf hole, and a tree branch in lieu of a flagstick in the center of the green. The rugged conditions—of heather and clover, of the course’s spring sweater—looked less American than English, Scottish, Australian, South African, a tour in turf from Beames’ global playing days. No wonder he had some pep in his step.

He emptied a shag bag about six paces off the green and grabbed a wedge that was forged in his heyday.

“This is the shot that you need. This is the shot that everybody needs and that almost no one has.”

He pressed his hands forward, turning the wedge into a 5-iron. He clipped the back of the ball, carrying it just onto the front edge of the green, and watched it release to within a couple feet of the hole.

“When I was really playing, I would come out here and bet some new pro a pound that I could chip one in, one out of five. And that’s how I made my money.”

There it was again: the familiar language. That chirping of a practice-green hustler. That thing that makes Beames feel so familiar, even as he is so defiantly singular. Sometimes he’s just another old stick with a few ancient tricks for fleecing some cash off unsuspecting victims.

We moved to an overgrown flat, where he pegged a ball from his shag bag and pulled a persimmon driver.

Without stretching, he settled over the ball, tweed cap on his head, pandemic-era bandana around his neck, lightweight hoodie, Dr. Seuss socks, California skate sneakers.

At address, the body makes one of those shapes that articulates, through several subtle angles, the difference between someone who knows how to swing a golf club and someone who doesn’t. It’s the placement of the hands. It’s the curve of the shoulders. It’s the bend in the knees. The whole thing looks like grainy footage, even though it’s in clear IRL HD. He can’t take it back as far as he used to, but the balance, the weight transfer, the release of the hands through the ball, the high finish, the lowering of the shaft onto the shoulder, like a fly-fishing line relaxing onto the surface of a river—it’s a marvel. The binder of photos and clippings may validate the stories of life on the road in the ’70s, but the swing validates the singular purpose of his life in the game, proof, in the weight transfer, that he was there, has been there. “The golf swing Peter proposes,” Gary Player wrote in Walk-Thru to Par, “is a composite of the techniques developed since early Scottish times by successful players for power and accuracy—without injurious strain to the body!” It’s the swing that has permitted Player eight decades of dexterity and speed. And it’s the swing that opened up almost all of the doors Peter Beames has walked through in his life.

When Beames had said, the night before, that when you’ve done something, the universe tends to continue putting you in touch with people, I hadn’t understood what he’d meant, exactly, by the “done something.” Did he mean play with these guys? Finish near the top of some ancient tournaments? Almost die along the way? It was all that. But it was the swing that clarified for me the something done: It said, “I was there, I belonged and I will spend the rest of my life as a messenger from that era that will pass without further record if you’re not careful of me and the other remaining survivors.” In the swing, there is both “I know about that of which I speak” as well as “Time has left me behind.”

In this inherent contradiction, the swing itself seems to say it again: “I am the head pro of nothing.”

5

It is one thing to do it. It is another to make a life out of sharing the secrets that everyone purports to have. Things like, “The secret of golf is…” (He demonstrated a strong left forearm and wrist through impact.) Or, “The secret of love is together and apart at the same time.” (Makes sense.) Or, “My secret to longevity is…” (as he swung a 13-pound sledgehammer that he keeps in his car). Or, “Another secret is…” 

Beames handed me a tweed cap from the back of his car that was a twin of his own. He passed me a ball and that tiny-headed persimmon driver, the same kind Nicklaus used in the early ’80s, he said.

I hit a big, loopy fade.

“Is that the ball you normally hit?”

I told him something like that, only reined in by the 500 cc of my modern driver head.

And then he showed me another one of the reasons people paid him just enough money for all those years. I hadn’t hit a draw in about a decade, but after six words of instruction, I watched a penetrating little UFO turn left with the sort of action on command you can get only with a wooden wood, and follow the dogleg of the driving range or the 10th fairway or whatever it was that lay beneath our feet.

There was birdsong all around. Soft morning light. When I’d asked him the night before what he loved about golf, he’d said, “I think the mystical thing about being out there—early dawn, the dew, the trees, the birds. For four hours, you have control of your own destiny.” And here we were, in a version of it. A vast overgrown emptiness that was either tragic or glorious, depending on your attitude.

“Isn’t it great to be the king of everything?” Beames said.

He had made a life of seeing the often little he had as a lot, and the occasional a lot he had as divine.

After a few more whacks, I asked him, “Do we go pick them up now?”

“Nah,” he said. “I have a day where I go out and pick ’em up. I’ve got plenty for right now.”

6

Before heading back to the house, we went to the McDonald’s where he goes every very early morning while in Watertown, just as he does at the McDonald’s in Oceanside, to work on his book.

Not another golf book. A book of life. Where does one begin? For many hours a day for the last 25 years, Beames has poured himself into a fantasy quest for children that he likens to Lewis Carroll, called The Boy Who Rode Clouds. I have seen it in several forms now, most memorably the first time, when Linksoul’s Cunningham gave me a video-chat tour of their upstairs office. In the middle of the room was this Technicolor tableau of papier-mâché, sculpture, illustration, text and scale models of things like Stonehenge and This Is the Book of All Knowledge. If you’re confused, you’re right to be. The simplest way to put it is that this collection of pictures and words is like one giant three-dimensional collage that comprises the story—what those more familiar with Beames and his life’s work refer to simply as “the book.”

As in, “And, of course, here’s the book.”

“Hold on,” I said, squinting at my screen, when Cunningham said this to me. “What exactly am I looking at here?”

beames
While his children’s book is not yet published, Beames has already built 3D models of its scenes. It’s part of his philosophy of working toward his goals while waiting for the universe to bend his way.

He smiled and nodded. Spezzano did the same thing when Beames began giving me a tour of a replica version of what I’d seen in the Linksoul office, set up right there in a corner of Spezzano’s kitchen. At its core, it is the story of a boy who faces a series of trials. The boy is about the age Beames was when he was sent to boarding school, an experience he called “brutal” and characterized as “the destroying of human beings.” It was at boarding school that he started to turn to golf for solace. (Notably, that boarding school was across the street from the site of his one and only Open Championship, at Royal Lytham & St Annes; the universe, Beames will point out again and again, is mysterious, but logical.) Anyway, Beames had started to explain the plot of The Boy Who Rode Clouds from what must’ve been somewhere in the middle, which felt like stepping into Harry Potter during books three or four instead of those earliest chapters when we get to learn about the world of magic right alongside our hero. “So the boy has to go across the mortal coil, because he’s got the star in his hand, and—”

“Pete, slow down,” Spezzano said. “You know it so well, you sometimes skip over all the important stuff.”

Why it’s important to know something about this epic children’s book written by this former pro golfer is that it is one of the things—if not the central thing—in Beames’ life that replaced the singular focus of trying to master golf. All former athletes are aware of the perilous vacuum that must be filled. All your life, you spend every waking moment knowing what the goal is each day, using every spare moment to get better. When it no longer matters if you get better, where do you find that structure and control? A never-ending book isn’t a bad idea.

But the book needs to end. For years, Beames has been waiting for the moment, the break, just like all the breaks that have saved him all his life. Some exceptional shot in a tournament when his back was against the wall. Or some corporate engagement that just covered the bills ’til next month. It’s been a life of one thing leading to the next. It’s been a life of things just working out. Which is why he believes that the book, his life’s work, is one read from a publisher or one look from a movie producer away from coming to fruition. He told me about the letter from Disney. He told me about the encouraging words from Bill Murray. He was close.

As we left McDonald’s, I asked Beames if he planned to return to California in the fall.

“I hope not,” he said. “I want to go to Wales. But, as of now, I don’t have the money.…I’m still expecting a miracle from Disney. Or the one or two other major animation companies that have said that they were interested. All it needs is one person to see the breadth of what I’ve done, and they get professionals involved with it. The right people will publish it. The right people will do the animation. It’s too far along…but it’s not on your timeline. It’s the world’s timeline. When the world is ready for it, it will come out.”

It broke my heart. The resilience, the conviction, the power of positive thinking that had gotten him this far. It was inspiring until it was deleterious. Getting books published or movies made at the age of 75, when you’ve never done such a thing before, comes with extraordinarily long odds. But so does making it to the top (or at least near the top) of the golfing mountain.

I asked him why Wales.

“That’s where I went as a young person. That’s where I learned to golf. Borth Golf Course. It’s one of the oldest golf courses in Britain.” He took a long sip of his senior coffee. “It’s where I’d like to die.”

So he was preparing. Maybe not for tomorrow. But soon. He was, he told me, at a time when you’ve got to start thinking about that sort of thing. But the plan required a number of other things to happen first.

“This book,” he said, “it’s going to work out—because it must.”

7

His is, some might say, delusional self-belief. This religion of the spheres, of willing something into being.

In Walk-Thru to Par, former CBS commentator Ben Wright provided less a blurb than a testament to one man’s life in golf: “Goodness knows where in the world I first met my good friend Peter Beames. It matters little because I subsequently came across him in practically every country in which tournament golf is played, always tilting at his personal windmills. I was both impressed and intrigued by the courage and lonely persistence of this apparently frail young Englishman against all professional golf’s formidable odds.”

It’s going to work out—because it must. I am going to be the greatest golfer who ever lived.

When I asked Beames at which point he started winning tournaments, he said he never really did: “I won the Cheshire Boys by 12 shots when I was 16; that was it.” But winning wasn’t necessarily important, because by then he had found Cassius Clay. “Now I was able to go, ‘I am the greatest!’ It was so anti-English,” he said. “It was immediately for me. And it changed everything.”

When we were at the golf course—his golf course—he had handed me a blade putter to hit a couple putts.

“I’ve been messing around with turning my hand over,” I said.

“No, no, no. You’re admitting to yourself that you’ve got a problem. Put your hands on normally and say to yourself, ‘I’m the best putter who’s ever lived. Because now I’ve got The Professor’s putter.’”

I made a putt and he tried to give it to me. “That’s your putter now.”

“I can’t take this,” I said. “Besides, I can’t fit it on the airplane.”

“You can’t? Well, ask the captain. You can find a way. You can’t not putt well with this—because it was mine.

It’s difficult to argue with the logic. These tautologies. You won’t miss because you can’t miss. The rules won’t apply because the rules don’t apply. The laws of physics are such that they pertain to everyone unless you are not everyone. This book is going to be published because it has to be published.

Will,” he had said to me about the difference between greatness and just goodness, “will makes it go in.”

As far as I can tell, there is only one true way to overcome one’s own limited talent in golf, and that is through total self-belief. When even the thought of whether you possess such self-belief enters your mind, you are tainting your self-belief, acknowledging that it may not be pure. It is like Schrödinger’s cat: You can’t actually look at your own golfing psyche without killing it. And yet this is the key to Beames’ version of both golf and life, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter whether he was really there or not (though he was) or if this story is all true or not (it seems to be), but rather that the way he believes in himself makes others believe in themselves, and collectively creates this momentum of belief that is powerful. As though anything the belief puts its back into can be achieved. Or at least that the result will be greater than it was before the tide of collective belief raised all boats in the water. People like to hear stories about Gary Player in South Africa and Arnold Palmer in Australia and a teenage Jordan Spieth in Colorado. But, more than anything, they like to hear about passion, about purpose, about resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Beames believes that tomorrow is going to be a good day, that tomorrow will be the day when it all works out, everything that all this, all the rocks in motion together, has been building to all his life.

“When I was a boy,” he told me, “my father would say, ‘Peter, it’s all a planetary system. If you want to be ill, you surround yourself with doctors, nurses, hospitals, injections. If you want to go to war, you surround yourself with generals, soldiers, guns. If you want to be successful, you surround yourself with positive, incredible people. Whatever you do, you’ll manifest that in your life.’”

I’m not sure I believe that all the way. But I believe it a little more than I did before meeting the person who’s proven it to be most true.