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Insider's Guide to Golfing Albuquerque

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."

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