Young Navajo golfer joins the club

Begay: The first full-blooded Native American on the PGA Tour will help make this week's U.S. Open live up to its name.

June 13, 1999|By Colman McCarthy

THIS THURSDAY on some long and tight fairways at the No. 2 Course at the Pinehurst, N.C., golf resort, the inbred and mostly white world of professional golf will see another door being opened.

Notah Begay III, 26, a member of the Navajo tribe and the first full-blooded Native American to play on the PGA Tour, is scheduled to tee off in the U.S. Open.

Begay's route to the highest ranks of golf was not the usual one taken by such privileged country-club children as Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

Begay, whose father works for the Indian Health Service in Albuquerque and whose mother is a New Mexico state employee in the juvenile justice system, began hanging around a public golf course at age 6, doing odd jobs for no pay. The pro let him hit practice balls and play the course for free in the evening.

At 9, Begay began winning statewide junior tournaments. At 14, he won an international junior tournament. At 17, he was ranked the nation's No. 1 junior golfer. Who was No. 2? Tiger Woods. They would end up as teammates at Stanford University in 1995, when Begay was a senior and Woods a freshman.

When the Stanford golf coach came to Albuquerque to give the young Navajo a look, he saw Begay in action only in his other high school sport, basketball. He noticed a kid with 3-D skills -- desire, daring and discipline -- and the kind of zeal that set him diving for any loose ball.

Without seeing Begay hit a golf ball, the coach offered him a full, four-year scholarship. If the coach had a wild dream or two, they came true: Begay became a three-time All-American and in the 1994 NCAA championship scorched the course with a 62, the lowest score in the tournament's history. Last year, while playing on the Nike Tour, Begay went lower, shooting a 59, which matched the best round recorded in PGA golf.

Begay has another side to him, one that keeps both his social conscience active and his ties to Native Americans strong. On May 26, he came to Washington to testify before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He was warmly welcomed by the committee chairman, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican and a Cheyenne who was on the 1964 Olympic judo team.

The purpose of the hearing was to gather information about successful programs for Indian youth. Other witnesses included a student leader from Minnesota's Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and an official from the United National Indian Tribal Youth Program in Oklahoma. All recited the facts of poverty in Indian Country: high unemployment, drug addiction, suicide and dropping out of school.

Begay, who spoke without notes, text or hesitation, was eloquent in arguing for a more equitable sharing of the nation's wealth for Native Americans, many of whom are among the poorest of the poor. While posing for a photo after the hearing with Campbell, Begay spoke of the Native American Sports Council. A new program, it received nearly $250,000 from the U.S. Golf Association and about $500,000 worth of equipment from Nike. Seven golf programs in and around reservations are operating, with the goal of drawing Indian youth not only to the game but also to job opportunities in the sport.

After the hearing, I played a round of golf with Begay at the Chevy Chase Club in suburban Washington, where the professional, Jim Fitzgerald, was the host. In between 310-yard drives and crisp irons that would lead to a relaxed 68, Begay talked about golf and Indians: "If I were a basketball player, I'd be in the NBA. Every kid in Indian Country would know of me. But because I play golf -- and golf isn't all that known on the reservation -- they don't know who I am. So I need to achieve that much more. They need to see me in magazines and on television in order for them to identify with me as an Indian and achieving success on the professional level."

Unlike many athletes with early promise, Begay stayed in college to earn his degree -- in economics, one of Stanford's toughest disciplines. He recalled when, as a collegian, he gave a talk to a group of Native American youths.

"I saw that I had a positive influence on them," he said, "and they kind of listened to what I had to say, just based on what little amount of success I had until then in golf. I realized that I needed to get my college degree. I felt it would be hypocritical of me to give talks to Indian kids about the need for an education -- staying in school and getting good grades -- if I myself didn't do it. I knew it was going to be difficult, because I chose a difficult school. At the same time, if I did achieve my degree, I could go back and tell Indian kids, 'If I can do it, you can do it.'"

Personable and well-spoken, Begay is in the tradition of earlier Indian athletes-- Tarzan Brown, the Narragansett distance runner who twice won the Boston Marathon, and Jim Thorpe, the multi-sport star -- who were minorities in mostly white sports. Each brought uncounted followers onto playing fields once barred by racial and class distinction. Notah Begay made it to Pinehurst by playing fine golf: a 64 and 69 in qualifying rounds Tuesday in Memphis. Because of that, the U.S. Open this week will indeed be that -- open, if just a bit more.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. He teaches courses on nonviolence at several Washington-area schools.

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