Notah Begay III, the only full-blooded Native American ever to play on the PGA Tour, strode toward the ramshackle clubhouse at the 6,534-yard par-seventy-one Los Altos Park Municipal Golf Course, in Albuquerque, with the confident gait of a homegrown hero. It was a mild fall morning, and the peaks of the Sandias were still glistening with the reddish tinge that inspired their name, which means "watermelon" in Spanish. The Tour was on hiatus, but Begay had agreed to play in a scramble to raise funds for John Kienle, a pro at Los Altos who was going blind because of diabetes.
"I was planning a break from golf this week," Begay confided as he checked in with the starter. "But when I heard about John, I decided I had to play in this tournament."
Begay's response came as no surprise to the hookers and slicers of Albuquerque who have known him since he was a nine-year-old beginner. The city is set in a high desert valley carved out by the Rio Grande and is ringed by Indian reservations, where Begay's roots run deep. The previous week here, on Notah Begay III Day, he had helped raise $20,000 for Native American scholarships. Earlier in the year, as a PGA Tour rookie, he had won more than one million dollars and won both the Reno-Tahoe Open and the Michelob Kingsmill Championship. After Kingsmill, he pumped his fist at the cameras: "This is for you, Albuquerque!"
On January 19, two months after the John Kienle Benefit Tournament at Los Altos, Begay was arrested in front of an Albuquerque bar on a charge of aggravated drunken driving. At his arraignment, he not only pleaded guilty but also volunteered that he had been convicted on a similar charge in Arizona in 1995. Begay subsequently served seven days in jail under the terms of a work-release program that permitted him to practice his golf during daylight hours at the University of New Mexico's Championship course.
Although one prominent sports columnist decried the episode as another example of a star athlete getting preferential treatment, Native Americans applauded Begay's willingness to take responsibility for his wrongdoing, and his equipment sponsor, Nike, and PGA Tour officials concurred that he had handled the incident appropriately.
Acknowledging that he had let down youngsters, Begay expressed remorse that he had "fed right into the stereotype of the drunken Indian" and vowed to remain alcohol-free for a year. "In jail I reflected on the actions that put me there," he would say later. "I never want to go back."
Until his recent run-in with the law, Begay was probably best known to golf fans for three other decidedly double-edged distinctions. The first was shooting a pro-Tour-record-tying fifty-nine in the second round of the 1998 Nike Dominion Open, in Richmond, Virginia, only to wind up finishing in a tie for sixth. The second was his ambidextrous putting technique; he putts either right-handed or left-handed, depending on the direction of the break. The third was having roomed with Tiger Woods at Stanford.
Like just about every other golfer in the world, Begay has conceded that his game does not yet match Woods's. But, he insists, "If I didn't think that I was capable of beating everybody on the Tour, including Tiger, I wouldn't have any business being out there. My culture is one of the primary reasons I can shoot low scores. I have a really sound knowledge of where I come from, and that enables me to elevate myself to a higher level of spirituality. When I get in the zone, I just go with it because I become one with the game and one with my surroundings."
Along with photographer Sam Walsh and local developer Mike Yrene, I was treated to a firsthand demonstration of Begay's character and his spiritually elevating golf game during the charity tournament at Los Altos. We witnessed a display of shot-making skills that even Woods would have relished and found out exactly what it takes to shoot a score in the fifties and how one of the up-and-coming stars of the PGA Tour draws strength from, and gives back to, the Native American culture that spawned him.