Notah Begay is the first full-blooded Native American to win on the PGA Tour.
By Michael D'Antonio
GOLF Magazine - May 2000
YOU GET THE IDEA something is different about this Friday morning at Ladera Golf Course by looking around the parking lot. Half the vehicles that wheel across the pavement are pickup trucks, and half of them have hand-woven dream catchers hanging from their rearview mirrors.
Up near the clubhouse, two older women cook Navajo frybread in a cauldron of hot oil. On the practice tee, a small grandstand fills with spectators. An Apache medicine man invokes the spirits of the living earth and dusts the crowd with pollen collected from cattails. In the section reserved for dignitaries, Miss Nvajo Nation adjusts her silver crown.
In the middle of it all stands Notah Begay III, who won twice last year during his rookie season on the PGA Tour. He waits patiently for a busload of grade-schoolers to arrive from a nearby reservation. And he understands that while the banners say it's "Notah Begay III Day in Albuquerque," this celebration is bigger than one man. He has become a symbol of hope for his people. And this day is a chance for them to feel proud.
"I am a golfer, and I have had success this year, " says Begay. "But I am happy to represent the values of a culture that has supported me: respect for your elders and yourself, respect for where you live and where you come from, respect for your body and mind. I don't think there is a burden in being a role model. Actually, it's something I seek out. I want the kids to see it's possible for them to be a success, too, in whatever they choose."
A couple of months later, Begay would stumble as role model when he was arrested and convicted on a drunk driving charge. To his credit, Begay took full responsibility for his actions, even telling the New Mexico judge about a prior Arizona offense and thereby receiving a seven-day jail term. "You do something wrong, you pay the price," Begay says.
Last year, the 27-year-old became the frist full-blooded Native American to win on the PGA Tour when he captured the Reno-Tahoe Open and the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill. Suddenly, tribes from the Apache to the Zunis had a hero. And the rest of the Tour had to contend with one more young gun from Stanford University.
When Begay talks about the keys to his development as a winning golfer, he begins with his time at Stanford playing alongside Tiger Woods and Casey Martin. Begay had arrived at the university with a certain insecurity about his place in the game.
"All through junior golf, I never saw people who looked like me," he says. "My clothes weren't as nice as the other kids', and my clubs weren't as good. I didn't know if I belonged. But I learned those things didn't matter. And I learned what it took to compete."
One of the most important things Begay learned was how to accept what a round of golf brings. "I always wanted to force the outcome, make something happen," he says. "Sometimes you have to let events unfold in front of you, and attack when the opportunities are there. It's hard to accept that some things are not in your control."
This philosophy about golf is consistent with a spiritual approach to life that Begay learned from his family and the Native American community. "There are prayers that are said when you are going out to meet a challenge," explains his mother, Laura Ansera. "You draw upon the spirits to bring you strength to succeed if it is for you. If you don't prevail, then you must learn from the experience."
This kind of learning is not always pleasant.
"When he was a kid, Notah could beat all the club pros around here and they told him he had to start playing outside of New Mexico," recalls his father, Notah Begay Jr. "He went to California to play in a tournament and came back all upset. 'There was this guy called Phil Mickelson who kicked my butt,' he said. I asked him what he wanted to do about it. 'Take me to the golf course,' he said. 'I've got to practice.' "
Before joining the Nike Tour, Begay sometimes prayed to the spirits and smoothed clay on his face before his competitive rounds. He stopped because he feared it would draw attention away from his game. Now, Begay wants to use his fame to serve as an advocate for Native Americans, especially children.
"People are very misinformed about our community, and I definitely have experienced racism," he says. "But if I let myself be controlled by the anger, I'd be getting into arguments every day. Even in the locker rooms on Tour, I hear a lot of strong political opinions, but mostly I just listen. But as we get to know each other, I'll tell them about Indian people and myself. They don't know that I was on welfare for a while, or that I wouldn't have gone to Stanford without a Pell grant."
At Stanford, Begay earned a degree in economics, learned more about the history of Native Americans, and studied the leadership style of Martin Luther King Jr., who became a hero to him. "King said that what has happened in history hurts, but more violence and destruction never helped anyone," says Begay. "He said people had to persevere and find the strength to reach their goals within themselves."
Begay stresses education and hard work as the solution for youth caught in the poverty gripping Native Americans. He also serves as inspiration for a golf boomlet in Indian Country. In the past year, the USGA and Native American Sports Council have funded the creation of youth programs for tribes in Wisconsin, North Dakota, and New Mexico. Some of the kids involved are on the late-arriving bus that delays the festivities at Ladera Golf Course.
When the kids finally arrive, Begay puts on a display that includes some trick shots and one-on-one lessons for three lucky grade-schoolers. He then devoted two full hours to signing autographs and giving away tee shirts with his picture on the front and his personal recipe for success on the back. The ingredients are printed in big, black letters: Perseverance, Responsibility, Citizenship, Discipline, Integrity, Patience, Fairness, Respect, and Caring. They are Native American values, says Begay. They are athe values of the a golf champion, as well.
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