2004: Perspective - Chip Beck’s insurance policy

Chicago

He is an atypical insurance salesman. Most haven’t played on three Ryder Cup teams, won a Vardon Trophy, shot 59 on the PGA Tour and won four Tour titles. Most insurance salesmen aren’t Chip Beck.

Beck has been selling life and health policies since early last year for a simple reason. “I wasn’t making any money playing golf,” he said.

Golf was good to him for a long time. The $6.2 million in official Tour earnings say so. But he lost his game in the mid-1990s, and when a professional golfer loses his game, he doesn’t get paid.

In Beck’s case, he was missing cut after cut and had expenses of $2,500 to $4,000 per week on tour. That is not a good situation when you have a wife and six children, ages 9-20, and live in a wealthy suburb like Lake Forest, Ill. Out of necessity he downsized houses from 9,000 square feet to one about half the size.

“It’s a nice way for me to bridge the gap to the Senior (Champions) Tour,” Beck, 47, said of his second career, which he anticipates continuing for a couple of decades. “I’ve enjoyed the break and the learning that goes into it.”

Former U.S. Amateur champion John Harris, a Minnesota insurance salesman, planted the seed during a rain delay at 2002 U.S. Open qualifying. Beck followed up by calling Joel Hirsch, the two-time British Senior Amateur champion from Chicago who was scaling back on his insurance work. Beck and Hirsch’s partner with National Life of Vermont, John Vitt, ended up forming a 50-50 partnership in a financial services firm they named Mentor Financial. Since Beck passed an in-house aptitude test, Vitt has trained him, sent him to classes, helped him pass a state licensing exam and accompanied him on most sales calls.

His enthusiasm still infectious, Beck has sold three policies on his own and has accompanied Vitt on seven or eight other large, complex deals. They list Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser among their clients.

“When I made my first money outside golf,” Beck said, “it felt surreal.”

Vitt says Beck probably will make about $200,000 this year and eventually “any number he wants – a half-million or a million a year if he gets himself rolling.”

Beck was second in Tour earnings in 1988 with $916,818. But since 1993 – the year he made the last of his three consecutive Ryder Cup appearances (his 6-2-1 record includes 3-0 in singles) – he has had only three top 10s on the PGA Tour, none since 1996.

It was in ’93 that he “took a beating” from critics after he hit a lay-up iron shot from 250 yards out on No. 15 Sunday while trailing eventual Masters champion Bernhard Langer by three shots. Beck still says that was his “only option” because he didn’t want to “risk the tournament on one shot.” He says he was “hurt” and “mad” because his caddie, fired soon after, didn’t publicly support that play. “Insubordination at the highest level,” Beck says.

Beck missed 47 consecutive Tour cuts in 1997-98, and has missed the cut in all 11 starts since 2000. On the Nationwide Tour in 2000-04, he has earned $81,854, had two top 10s and made 19 cuts in 47 starts.

He lost his swing in the mid-’90s, missing drives way right, and then his confidence. It didn’t help that he made a 1994 equipment change (from Ping to Powerbilt for $650,000 per year), had back and eye problems, felt pressure to support a large family in a big house and went through a half-dozen instructors.

He used to hit low cuts with a closed face. That worked for a long time but hurt his back. Now, thanks to help from Dr. Jim Suttie, he plays with a neutral face and no back problems. He says he’s hitting the ball higher and straighter than ever.

“I should’ve taken a two-year break in 1994-95 to get organized when I got burned out,” Beck said. “You can’t maintain that kind of intensity. It’s like the rest in music being as important as the music itself. Now I think I’ll be ready for the Champions Tour.”

This year, for the first time, he didn’t try to qualify for the U.S. Open, in which he has tied for second twice, including in 1986 at Shinnecock Hills. But he’s playing a few 2004 Nationwide events, and plans to increase his appearances the next two seasons. He’ll also continue with corporate outings, customer golf and sales calls.

“Chip is a very enthusiastic learner, has wonderful contacts and is well received,” Hirsch said. “A main thing in the insurance business is handling rejection. I’ve always brought in good golfers because they handle rejection all the time. In Chip’s case, he’s calling on people he knows and he can go a lifetime with those people and their referrals. He can write seven or eight out of 10 instead of the one or two when you call on strangers.”

Beck qualified for National Life’s President’s Club by making more than $30,000 in commissions last year and $50,000 this year.

He sold enough to win a Carribean cruise he and wife Karen took in April. Vitt says Beck’s handicap as a salesman is “scratch.”

When not playing golf, Beck usually takes the 7:24 a.m. train to his Chicago office, stopping off for mass at nearby St. Peter’s Church. You can find daughter Mary Catherine’s artwork and three Ben Hogan photographs in his office but no trophies; they’re stored away in his basement. You can find him dressed in suits he got for Ryder Cups.

Selling is like golf because of the ups and downs. One day his briefcase accidentally opened and wind blew several papers all over a downtown street.

“I was really out of my element,” Beck said. “I was so embarrassed. There were 10 people helping me pick the papers up. That was like making a triple bogey.”

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