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.