Notah Begay's Drive

Squarely in the spotlight as the country's top Native American athlete, he has what it takes to be both role model and star: maturity, focus and an occasional stroke of genius.

May/June 2001

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Notah Begay's Drive

Erik Campos/The State

Two hundred people sat hip-to-hip on the floor of the pueblo's lantern-lit kiva, waiting. In their midst, a 6-year-old boy slept between his mother's legs. When the ceremonial leaders finally came in for their first dance, the boy awoke to the sound of their bells. He stood up, rubbed his eyes. And as the song began, he started to dance. He didn't notice that he was the only audience member dancing, but the performers did. After each dance, they gave him corn and watermelon out of appreciation for his innocence and fearlessness. By the end of the ceremony many hours later, the little boy had accumulated a pile of food so large his mother needed help carrying it out. "I had never seen anybody stand up and dance like that," she says. "He just felt it in his body and did it. He was so unafraid."

At 28, Notah Begay III is still reaping the benefits of a dauntless spirit. Now in his third year on the Professional Golf Association Tour, he has emerged as one of the sport's charismatic performers, with an aggressive, intrepid game--a finer-tuned version of the flamboyant style that earned him All-America honors at Stanford in 1994 and 1995. He is an established winner, no longer identified by association--Tiger Woods's former college teammate, the Native American guy with the funky swing, the drunk driver who got work-release to play golf. Begay, '94, is one of only three players to win twice in each of his first two years on the Tour (Woods and Phil Mickelson are the others) and the first man to notch back-to-back tournament victories since Woods won six in a row in 1999 and 2000. Last year, Begay placed in the top 10 in four PGA events, highlighted by his triumphs at the FedEx St. Jude Classic and the Canon Greater Hartford Open, and earned a spot on the President's Cup team, where he partnered with Woods, '98. His career winnings already exceed $2 million. It is a mountain of achievement that few in that village kiva would have ever imagined. Begay might not have either, had he been the type to worry about the tide of history and circumstance working against him.

"Even as a little kid, he used to tell people, 'I'm going to be in the PGA,'" says his father, Notah II. "You looked at this little Indian kid and you said, 'Yeah, right, and I'm going to be the next millionaire.' I used to say, 'That's right, son, you are.' But deep in my heart, I knew how big a dream that was and how tough it was going to be."

It's still tough. For all his success, Begay remains an anomaly on the white-bread Tour, although he is very well-liked and respected. He is the first full-blooded Native American to win a Tour event since Rod Curl in 1974, and he quietly proclaims his heritage each time he steps on the course--his hoop earrings are a tribute to his tribal roots. (Begay's father is Navajo, his mother, Laura Ansera, is Pueblo--half San Felipe, half Isleta.) And it's not only his background that sets Begay apart. He is the only player on the Tour who can putt equally well right- or left-handed.

Although earnings are the benchmark for assessing performance on the PGA Tour--"the money list" is a proxy for player rankings--Begay's millionaire status hasn't demonstrably changed his lifestyle or his outlook. In his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M, where he lives in a modest adobe-style house at the foot of the Sandia Mountains, entertainment might consist of watching a basketball game at his old high school. Better still is a night practicing with the team, which he does several evenings a week through most of his two-month off-season. Once the players grow accustomed to the thrill of having a celebrity sharing their court, they knock him to the floor like anybody else.

Begay has never been one to leverage his fame for unfair advantage. After he was arrested in January 2000 for driving while intoxicated after hitting a parked car outside an Albuquerque bar, Begay told the judge at the sentencing hearing, "I made a big mistake, and I want to be held responsible." Then he went further, notifying the court that he had had another drunk driving conviction in Arizona five years earlier, an inconvenient fact that officials say he probably could have left safely buried. A second conviction meant jail time, probation, community service, a yearlong suspension of his driver's license and unknown fallout for his endorsement contracts. But Begay owned up, he says, to set a good example. "When you are faced with adversity, you really get to test your character," he told Stanford earlier this year. "It's simple to set a good example if you are succeeding and everything is going your way, but it's tougher when you have to make a decision that could jeopardize a lot of things you've worked very hard for."

Begay braced for his sponsors--Nike, Hogan and Las Campañas Country Club in Santa Fe--to cut and run, but none did. Indeed, although his cushy one-week, work-release jail sentence--12 hours in jail, 12 hours out to play golf or train--attracted a lot of media coverage, the incident won more fans than detractors. "I probably gained more respect among my golfing peers for how I handled that than I did for my first win," Begay says. "But the fact remains that I was very ashamed of myself. I was heartbroken that I had let down a lot of fans and supporters, mainly the young Native American kids who had looked up to me as someone who had overcome a lot to succeed."

One such group was the students at Ganado High School on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where Begay had helped establish a golf program the year before. They were so upset about Begay's arrest they wrote him a letter saying as much. But, they added, "if you have to do community service, come speak to us." Begay did. In the midst of his speech, three rowdy freshmen were escorted out of the auditorium. The boys were later instructed to write a letter of apology to Begay explaining their misbehavior. Begay wrote back to each of them, saying, in effect, "I can relate--I've made mistakes, too."

"Notah is such a gentle, amazing soul; no one asked him to do that," says Madge Becker, an administrator in the Ganado school district. "Those boys have no idea how valuable those letters will be to them someday."

Actually, they probably do. In the Native American community, Begay is the brightest star there is. At San Felipe Pueblo, where Begay still participates in Christmas Eve ceremonies with his mother, girls stand behind him and giggle, wanting to touch him. Everyone claims cousinship. Even the Pueblo elders, the tribe's social, governmental and religious leaders, have approached him and talked to him. "In our culture, that's like being singled out by the pope," says Begay's mother.

Begay looms just as large in his hometown. "If you had Tiger and Notah walking down the street together in Albuquerque, I think people would notice Notah first," says Wright Zimmerly, the current pro at Ladera Golf Course, where Begay learned to play and where a new lobby is being named in his honor.

Begay doesn't take for granted what celebrity he has achieved. He obliges autograph seekers wherever they find him: at his health club, in restaurants, at the high school basketball games he haunts. "The attention doesn't bother him," says his brother, Clint, a former University of Hawaii golfer who caddied during his brother's back-to-back wins last year. "He has always said, 'This is what I was meant to do.' He strongly believes he was made to play golf, that that was how he was going to make a difference in the world."

Begay uses his prominence for advocacy. He works closely with the Albuquerque Community Foundation, which funds college education for Indian students; he is a spokesman for New Mexico's American Diabetes Association, which battles a disease rampant among native peoples; he has testified before Congress about Native American issues; and he has worked with the U.S. Golf Association to improve access for young minority golfers. Even on the Tour, he is never far from his roots. A few years ago, he stopped smearing under his eyes the red clay traditionally applied at the outset of a long journey because he felt the inevitable media portrayal of it as "war paint" fed a negative Indian stereotype. But he hasn't given up the hoop earrings worn for generations by Southwestern Native American men. If it annoys some people in golf's conservative circles, that doesn't bother Begay. "I carry the flag for a lot of Native Americans around the country," he says. "If there are Native Americans in the gallery or watching me on tv and I'm wearing the earrings, they know I'm an Indian. And it's important for them to know that."

Madge Becker couldn't agree more. "When you are in a community with 78 percent unemployment, these kids learn very early on that they don't have a future," she says. "Notah shows them that they are flat-ass wrong, that they can make something of themselves. It doesn't get handed to you on a platter; it is a lot of hard work. But there is a payoff.

"You cannot imagine how powerful it is when he stands before them as a success story. It doesn't have anything to do with money. It has to do with somebody who has made it and is accepted on his own terms. He has not sold out. He is still very much a Native American."

It was a ridiculous notion of course—a poor Indian kid from a broken home making his mark in a world dominated by country-club sons of privilege. Begay made it with a lot of work, significant help, a measure of serendipity and an inner drive he says is a reflection of arete—the Greek term for the pursuit of excellence. It's a concept he first learned about in high school but seemed to embody from childhood.

After his parents divorced when Notah was 2 and Clint was a week old, the boys spent weekends and assorted other days with their dad, who lived off the 14th fairway of Ladera, a municipal course on the western edge of Albuquerque. When Notah ii had his sons on Thursdays, he'd bring them to his twilight hacker golf league, where they'd tag behind the adults, whacking at balls with cut-down clubs. By age 8, Notah was so taken with the game that he started recycling cans and mining couch cushions for cash to buy buckets of practice balls. Eventually, he asked Ladera head pro Don Zamora if he could do odd jobs in exchange for time on the driving range.

One early morning in 1983, Ladera's new teaching pro, Leo Van Wart, spotted Begay, then about 10, in the snack bar playing a video game. When Van Wart returned for lunch several hours later, the boy was still there, confidently working the controls with one hand and stuffing french fries into his mouth with the other. "How much have you spent on that game today?" Van Wart asked him. "A quarter," Begay replied. Van Wart, who had been looking for the right kid to mold into a future pro, knew he had found him.

The great hand-eye coordination was only part of what appealed to Van Wart. He says he saw in Begay a personality like that of a daredevil skateboarder—"somebody who's not afraid to throw himself into space and who's confident he'll land on his feet," says Van Wart, now a teaching pro in Las Vegas. "And even if he doesn't, he thinks, 'Wow, that was awesome!'He is still seeing the fun of it all. That's where Notah was."

The kid had other promising qualities: athleticism, a strong work ethic, competitiveness. And he was no-questions-asked coachable. "If I told him there was no reason he shouldn't get a birdie on every hole, he'd say, 'Okay, I can see that,'" says Van Wart. "He never argued."

Begay had everything a young golfer needed except money. His dad didn't make a lot working at the local Bureau of Indian Affairs, and neither did his mom, who was attending and working at the University of New Mexico. So Van Wart gave him lessons for free.

Under Van Wart's guidance, Begay spent most of his time on the pitching and putting greens, developing the short game that former Stanford coach Wally Goodwin says is the best he has ever seen. Every time Van Wart taught him a grip change or any other technical nuance, Begay practiced it 60 times a day for 30 days, until it was second nature. He learned to be creative, to figure out two or three ways to hit any shot—and that an elegant swing may look nice, but scoring low is all that really matters. "Every tournament I've been in, low score wins," he says.

And Begay loved to win. "Winning was an addictive feeling," he says. "I think that's why I stuck with golf. I always won."

He became such a dominant force in the New Mexico Peewee circuit—at age 11, he didn't lose a single tournament—that other kids' parents would check to see whether Begay was playing before they bothered to sign up their sons. Even his dad wouldn't play against him. "I quit playing golf after he hit 10 years old and he beat me for the first time," says Notah ii. "I'm too competitive; I would have spent too much time trying to make myself a better golfer rather than worrying about him. I coached him in soccer and in basketball, but I carried his bags in golf."

Except when he couldn't afford to. Notah ii stretched beyond his means to fund tuition at the Albuquerque Academy, a private prep school Notah entered in sixth grade. So when he recognized that his son needed the competition that national tournaments would provide, he borrowed money and wrote postdated checks to pay for bus tickets and airfare for Begay, who traveled alone to out-of-state tournaments and slept on the couches of friends of friends of friends. "I had so many creditors after me," says Notah ii, staring into a decaf coffee at an Albuquerque Starbucks. His eyes mist as he ponders the potential dangers facing a kid traveling solo. "We were blessed," he says quietly. "Shoot, they could have got me for child neglect."

Humble circumstances made Begay stick out as much at the Academy as he did on the junior golf circuit. When he was staying with his dad, he got dropped off at the school's bmw- and Mercedes-bejeweled parking lot in a beat-up, coughing '69 Chevy pickup. "I knew Notah was embarrassed," says Notah ii, his eyes filling again. "It wasn't so bad picking him up after school because he was in sports late. But the mornings were tough for him. One morning he asked me to drop him off before we got to the school. He didn't say anything when I asked why, so I said, 'Listen, you have to be proud of who you are. Don't you ever feel sorry for yourself or feel like you have to answer to anybody. Don't ever be ashamed of who you are.' He never asked to be dropped off early again."

Athletic success came easily to Begay. In his senior year of high school, he earned all-state honors in basketball and soccer, was an All-American in golf and was voted New Mexico's high school athlete of the year. But classwork was another matter. "He wasn't a top student; he really had to work at it," says Notah ii. "When he started getting recruited by Stanford, his buddies laughed at him and told him he'd never get in. That challenged him. From there on out, it was, 'I don't care who offers me a scholarship, I'm going to Stanford.'" To make good on his vow, Begay started going to school an hour early and staying late to work with an English teacher on improving his verbal skills for the sats.

Coach Goodwin never saw Begay play golf before he signed him. But he did see him lead the Academy basketball team to the state title as a shooting guard. "It didn't take me five minutes to realize the kid was extraordinary in leadership and fight and determination," says the retired Stanford coach.

When Begay showed up on the Farm with his hoop earrings, his red clay and his unorthodox municipal-course game, his conventionally trained teammates were fascinated. "His game was so different from mine," says Brad Lanning, a class of '93 Cardinal teammate who graduated in 1994. "He had so much confidence; he didn't really worry about where the ball went. And he was absolutely the best chipper and putter I had ever seen in my life."

"Notah was like a caged animal off the tee," recalls Mark Freeland, '94, another former teammate who is now Begay's agent. "He'd hit it all over the map, and he'd play aggressively all the time. Let's say you have a short par 4 that's very narrow with lots of trees. The way I was taught to play, you hit a three- or four-iron off the tee so you'd be sure and stay on the fairway. When Notah got to a hole that was, say, 330 yards, no matter how narrow it was, he'd pull out a driver and try to knock it on the green. He didn't care if he hit in the trees, because he knew that he had the resources to get out."

With the arrival of Begay and classmate Casey Martin, Stanford accelerated its transition from has-been program to national power. Begay's freshman year, the Cardinal made the NCAAs for the first time in 19 seasons. The following year, it won the Pac-10 title and placed ninth in the NCAAs. While redshirting his junior year, Begay began experimenting with switch-putting—standing over the ball from either the right or left side depending on a putt's break—a technique that he figured could eventually give him a one-shot-a-round advantage. Few golfers have tried to master switch-putting because it requires twice as much practice as well as the strengthening of the nondominant eye, something Begay does by sometimes wearing a patch over his right eye when he putts.

"I remember asking him that year if he was serious about switch-putting, and he said, 'Yes, I want to be the best,' " recalls Martin, '94. " 'I want to win the U.S. Open when I'm 30, and I think this will help me do it.' "

Begay, Martin and Will Yanigasawa, '95, a junior-college transfer, joined forces in 1994 with Lanning and Steve Burdick, '95, to win the NCAA championship. In the third round of the tournament, Begay, putting right- and left-handed, shot a 62, the lowest score in championship history.

Woods arrived the next year, completing the golf team's Rainbow Coalition and making the Cardinal the favorite in every tournament. Even though it lost the NCAA title to Oklahoma State in a playoff, "that team was special," says Begay. "Not just because of the guys who made up the team, but we were really good. I would take that team against any national championship team across the ages and know that we would be right on top."

After graduating in 1995 with a degree in economics, Begay spent two years on the Canadian Tour. In 1998, playing on pro golf's second-tier Nike Tour, he shot a 59 at the Dominion Open, tying the lowest 18-hole score in professional golf history. He finished second four times on the Nike Tour, good enough to earn him a PGA Tour card and a place in the world where he always felt, somehow, he belonged.

' I was made to play the PGA Tour because I'm such a ham," says Begay, sitting on a chair in front of the flickering 5-by-5 tv screen that dominates his living room. "I like being in front of people, I like making a fool of myself, and that's the perfect place to do it. You make shots that are so bad that you're just embarrassed to be out there, and then you hit shots that are so miraculous people never forget them."

Clint, reclining on a couch nearby, volunteers an example. It was his brother's third shot on the par-5 16th hole at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis last year. Notah's ball was in a difficult position, lying downhill, and the pin was only 6 feet from the edge of the green, requiring maximum precision. Hoping to land his ball close enough to the pin for an easy birdie putt, Begay manufactured a shot that perfectly demonstrated his mastery of the clubface. Using a full swing, he clipped the ball with just enough backspin to keep it from skidding past the hole. The ball landed heavily on the green, rolled a couple of inches and stopped 2 feet from the cup. "It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen," says Clint, who was caddying. "Usually when you hit it that low, it just takes off. But his hit and stopped on a dime."

Begay won the tournament by one stroke.

"A lot of guys might look better on paper or when they swing," says Martin, "but under the gun, very few are as good as Notah."

Though he still attacks the course, Begay is a more polished player than he was at Stanford. "Thankfully, my game has evolved," he says. "I make better decisions. I know I don't have to hit it 350 [yards] every time. I still feel there's not a shot that I can't hit, and there's not a place that I don't think I can get out of. That confidence comes in extremely handy, but I don't need it as much as I used to."

Asked if his guiding principles have evolved as well, Begay shakes his head. "Work hard, put your best foot forward and always remember where you come from," he says. "I've never needed anything more than that."

Thus grounded, Begay will continue his ascent. He is approaching 30; the U.S. Open awaits.

Kelli Anderson, '84, is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, lives in Sonoma, Calif.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.