Drawing strength from his Native American heritage, Notah Begay III shows off his true colors — and the hometown that shaped him
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.
Although the 529-yard twelfth hole at Los Altos will never appear on anyone's list of America's most famous or most beautiful, it is the kind of risk-reward par five that separates the big dogs from the Chihuahuas. Here, as at many other courses in the area, the tee shot is everything. The left flank of the landing area is lined with a row of cottonwoods, and the right flank is guarded by a kidney-shape pond. Short knockers who elect to lay up deny themselves the chance to get home in two. Long knockers must either fit their drives in a ten-yard-wide slot to the left of the pond or carry the ball 280 yards over the water — a major poke, even in Albuquerque's mile-high elevation.
I had no doubt which option Begay would choose, even though a stiff early-morning breeze was blowing in our faces when we arrived at the twelfth, which happened to be our third hole of the day following a shotgun start. In a scramble tournament, you have to card a double-digit under-par score to have any hope of winning or even placing. That means you must make birdie or better on every hole, especially the par fives. The fact that Walsh, Yrene and I hit anemic drives short of the pond opened the door for the big dog on our team. "Looks like it's up to me to roll the dice," he said, flashing a mischievous smile.
With that, Begay turned serious, narrowing his eyes and setting his jaw as he stepped up to the tee. During his college days, he'd prepared for each round by donning hoop earrings, dabbing his cheeks with streaks of red clay and mouthing a Navajo prayer acknowledging the task at hand and the powers watching over Mother Earth. He still says the prayer but stopped wearing the clay and earrings shortly after turning pro. "I felt it perpetuated the stereotype of Indians dancing around the fire with feathers in their hair," he said earlier that day. "I like to educate people and break those stereotypes."
The swing Begay put on his drive at number twelve was an education in its own right. Widening his stance just past the breadth of his shoulders, he addressed the ball in a crouch similar to a baseball player's and drew the club back slowly with the power-enhancing bent left arm favored by many of the PGA Tour's driving-distance leaders. At five foot eleven, 195 pounds, Begay has the physique of a young Jack Nicklaus, absent the baby fat, and he poured every ounce of it into a downswing propelled by a dervishlike pivot of his hips. The ball thunderclapped off his driver and sailed over the pond with twenty yards to spare.
As Begay steered our golf cart down the fairway, he told me that his parents, who are divorced, provided both the means and the role models for his success in golf. His father, Notah Begay Jr., is a Navajo who serves as a specialist for the Indian Health Services. His mother, who is part San Felipe and part Isleta, works in New Mexico's juvenile justice system. Begay spent the first seven years of his life on the Isleta reservation south of town. After his parents separated, his father remarried and moved to a white-stucco ranch-style house on the fourteenth fairway of Ladera Golf Course, a municipally owned track on the west side.
"My father was on the basketball teams at St. Joseph's and at Cal State-Fullerton," Begay said. "He joined the twilight golfers' league at Ladera because he was getting too old for hoops. I took up golf so I could be out there with him." Then he added with another mischievous grin, "But my father was never very good. He's one of the few guys I know who can actually hit the ball twice with one swing."
Begay evidently inherited his father's nongolfing athletic prowess along with his mother's raw determination and reverence for Native American culture. After attending public schools in the primary grades, Begay enrolled at exclusive Albuquerque Academy, where he won all-state honors in soccer and basketball as well as in golf. He allowed that the man with the "single biggest influence" on his golf game from his junior days until quite recently was Leo Van Wart, formerly an assistant pro at Ladera and now director of golf at Sunrise Vista Golf Course, in Las Vegas. The two parted ways in 1997 after a dispute over a proposed swing change. Begay now gets his formal coaching from Harvey Penick disciple Brian Gathright at La Cantera Golf Club, in San Antonio.
Begay displayed the fruits of his ongoing swing improvements with his approach shot on twelve. After his teammates failed to get home with hard-pressed three-woods, Begay hit a four-iron 228 yards against the wind, landing his ball safely in the middle of the green to set up a direly needed two-putt birdie.
"At Albuquerque Academy they placed a high priority on academics, and when I mentioned to my classmates that I was interested in going to Stanford, they just laughed at me," Begay said as we headed to the next tee. "That made me mad." His score of 1,200 on the SATs helped him gain admission to Stanford on a golf scholarship. He later gave up a portion of his scholarship so the golf coach could recruit other promising high schoolers, including his good friend Casey Martin, the Oregon native afflicted with a debilitating circulatory disorder who recently won another round in his legal battle to be allowed to ride a golf cart on the PGA Tour.
At Stanford, Begay majored in economics, but he also expanded his knowledge of Native American history and culture. One of the subjects he studied was the role played in World War II by Navajo men such as his grandfather Notah Begay, a horse trader by profession who served as a "code talker" for the U.S. military. "The Navajo language was one of the main reasons we were able to win the war," Begay declared. "It was the only code the enemy couldn't break."
Begay also adopted his ambidextrous putting method at Stanford. He got the idea in 1993 from local teaching pro Tim Holman and inventor Brian Stack, who pointed out that right-handers were far less proficient at sinking right-breaking putts than left-handers. Holman and Stack concluded that it made sense from a "pure physics point of view" simply to putt right-breaking putts left-handed. Although Begay insists the technique has lowered his scores during the past six years, I saw no evidence of that during the scramble tournament at Los Altos, as he went 0 for 2 on his left-handed putts. The rest of Begay's short game, however, proved to be extremely solid.
And he repeatedly amazed us with his raw power. During the previous year, he had been lifting weights three days a week during road trips to tournaments. Since the PGA Tour had gone on hiatus, he had increased his weight lifting to six days a week and started working out with the Albuquerque Academy basketball team. His conditioning was clearly producing the desired results. On the 540-yard par-five seventeenth, Begay smashed a drive 370 yards downwind. On the 460-yard par-four fifth, he lashed a 335-yarder against the wind. And on the 340-yard eighth, our next-to-last hole of the day, he reached the middle of the green with a three-wood.
Thanks mainly to Begay's contributions, we carded a fourteen-under-par fifty-seven in the Los Altos scramble, only good enough for second place. Our failure to birdie three par threes left us three strokes behind the winners. It also put Begay's remarkable score of fifty-nine into proper perspective. Together, the four of us only managed to shoot two strokes lower than he had shot on his own ball in the second round of the Nike Dominion Open back in 1998.
At the end of the day, I was even more impressed by the increasing maturity of Begay's approach to the game, which, as he himself pointed out, accounted for his breakthrough wins on the PGA Tour last year as much as his length off the tee and his deadly accurate short game. "As long as you have the ability to shoot low scores, you need to work on consistency," he said. "I proved that I could shoot low scores while I was still an amateur. I shot a sixty-three in high school, and a sixty-two in the NCAAs my junior year in college. If you shoot a sixty-five along with three seventies, you'll finish very well every week out on the Tour."
Begay added that the improvement in his consistency can be traced back to his pre-round Navajo prayer, which focuses on acknowledging the task at hand. "When you're in the middle of shooting a low score, you're so completely in the present time on every hole," he said. "You're aware of everything to a heightened degree. Instead of just seeing a tree out there on the fairway in front of you, you see each leaf on the tree. Instead of just seeing a patch of grass where your ball is resting, you see every blade of grass."
In the Navajo language, the name Notah means "almost there." Begay may not be a code talker like his grandfather, but he's determined to get all the way there by translating his talents into full-blown stardom, winning major championships and qualifying for the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams. In the meantime, the jail sentence he served appears to have brought him something more important — an even deeper appreciation for the responsibilities of being a role model for Native Americans. "I hope it's just a blemish on what's going to be a very successful career," Begay said shortly after his release. "If anything like this were ever to transpire again, it's over. I'd lose all credibility with sponsors and fans, as I should."
BEGAY'S FAVORITE COURSES
Although he plays out of Las Campanas, in Santa Fe, Begay keeps a list of hometown favorites.
University of New Mexico's Championship (or South) Course
"What impresses everybody who plays this course are the enormous greens. They measure up to 8,500 square feet and usually roll at least nine on the stimpmeter. UNM is a perennial site of the NCAA men's championship tourney, and this particular layout is by far Albuquerque's most challenging. The ninth, a 602-yard par five, is all the golf hole you could ever want. You face an intimidating uphill tee shot, then the hole doglegs left over a hill to a sunken green guarded by three bunkers. The best hole is the fifteenth, a 364-yard par four that doglegs left around a pond with a big cottonwood tree on the edge. The hole's not straightforward, and that's why I like it. You're confronted with a number of options. If the tees are up, you can drive the right edge of the green. If the tees are back or the hole is playing into the wind, you can hit a three-wood or a two-iron to the right of the pond. Or you can lay back with a five-iron off the tee, then hit an eight-iron over the cottonwood. UNM also has a nine-holer called the North course, where you can work on your short game."
Par/Yardage: 72, 7,248 Architect: Red Lawrence Address: 3601 University SE, Albuquerque Phone: 505-277-4546
Santa Ana Golf Club, Cheena/Star/Tamaya Nines
"The best daily-fee course in Albuquerque is probably Santa Ana, located on the Santa Ana Indian reservation. I have a special fondness for the club because it gave me some sponsorship money the year after I turned pro. The Star nine is for high- and middle-handicappers. The Tamaya and Cheena nines hosted the Nike New Mexico Classic in 1999. Most of the greens slope sharply from back to front and/or tilt sideways toward trouble. My favorite Tamaya hole is the ninth, a 335-yard par four that doglegs right around a huge pond. If you can carry the ball 240 yards at sea level, you can roll the dice and try to reach the green with a driver or a three-wood because of Albuquerque's altitude. My favorite Cheena holes are the front-nine par threes: the 237-yard third, which has a deep linksland-style swale fronting the green, and the tricky 171-yard fifth. In 2001, Santa Ana plans to open a Hyatt Regency and another eighteen holes designed by Gary Panks."
Par/Yardage: 35, 3,569 (Cheena); 36, 3,543 (Star); 36, 3,670 (Tamaya) Architect: Ken Killian Address: 288 Prairie Star Rd., Santa Ana Pueblo Phone: 505-867-9464
Isleta Eagle Golf Course, Arroyo/Lakes/Mesa Nines
"Isleta Eagle islocated just south of town on the Isleta reservation, where I lived until I was seven. Like Santa Ana, the area reflects recent Native American development by including a casino and a golf course. And like Santa Ana, Isleta offers three nines, two of which--Mesa and Lakes--are championship caliber. The Mesa nine has several holes that either force you to lay up or give you a chance to gamble. My favorite is the 593-yard par-five fifth, which requires you to hit your drive to the top of a hill to have any chance of getting home in two. The green is guarded by a deep arroyo, and if you lay up you must be precise so you'll have no more than a pitching wedge on your third shot. Two of the best holes on the Lakes nine are the 444-yard par-four second, which plays uphill to a small, steeply sloping concave green shaped like a western saddle, and the 471-yard par-four fifth, which also plays uphill, this time to a green surrounded by amphitheater-style grass mounding. The Arroyo's toughest hole, the 227-yard par-three third, has a plateau green fronted by four bunkers."
Par/Yardage: 36, 3,345 (Arroyo); 36, 3,745 (Lakes); 36, 3,793 (Mesa) Architect: William Phillips Address: 4001 Hwy. 47 SE, Isleta Phone: 505-869-0950
Ladera Golf Course
"Ladera will always be my favorite muni in Albuquerque because that's where I learned to play golf. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything special about Ladera, but it's really a mystical place. You can see three extinct volcanoes off in the distance to the west, and there's a row of lava-rock mesas behind the fourteenth fairway, where my family's house is. What I really love about Ladera are the huge, fast greens, which helped me to become a good lag putter. The overall pitch of the course is east, toward the Rio Grande, so you can easily be fooled by subtle breaks. My favorite hole at Ladera is the eighteenth, a 430-yard par four that bends to the left around a sausage-shape pond. The tee shot is everything here. Hook your drive, you're in the water. Bail out right, you'll find yourself with a long second shot from rocky hardpan. But if you put your tee ball safely in the left center of the fairway, you can set up a birdie with a short-iron approach and get ready to count your winnings in the clubhouse."
Par/Yardage: 72, 7,107 Architect: Richard Phelps Address: 3401 Ladera Dr. NW, Albuquerque Phone: 505-836-4449
WHERE TO STAY
Bottger-Koch Mansion Bed & Breakfast, 110 San Felipe NW, 505-243-36390
Inn at Paradise Hills, 10035 Country Club Ln. NW, 800-938-6161
WHERE TO DINE
Church Street Café, 2111 Church St. NW, 505-247-8522
High Noon Restaurant & Saloon, 425 San Felipe NW, 505-765-1455
Little Anita's Restaurant, 2105 Mountain Rd. NW, 505-242-3102
Monte Vista Fire Station, 3201 Central NE, 505-255-2424
Prairie Star, Santa Ana Golf Club, 288 Prairie Star Rd., Santa Ana Pueblo, 505-867-3327
Ranchers Club of New Mexico, Hilton Albuquerque, 1901 University NE, 505-884-2500
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Albuquerque Aquarium & Rio Grande Botanic Garden, 2601 Central NW, 505-764-6200
The American International Rattlesnake Museum, 202 San Felipe NW, 505-242-6569
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, 2401 Twelfth St. NW, 505-242-4943
Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, 50 Tramway Loop, 505-856-1532
San Felipe de Neri Church, 2005 N. Plaza NW, 505-243-4628