Long road to Augusta

Masters: Today, Notah Begay III becomes the first full-blooded Native American to play in this legendary tournament, overcoming many obstacles along the way.

April 06, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Don't look at a map to figure out how far Notah Begay III has traveled to get to his first Masters tournament. The distance between Ladera Golf Course in Albuquerque, N.M., and Augusta National Golf Club shouldn't be measured in miles, but light-years.

Don't look at Begay for any visible clues to see what he has overcome to play in the 64th Masters, which begins today. With his wraparound shades, his swooshed shirt and the other accouterments that come with being a member of the PGA Tour, Begay doesn't look markedly different from his peers.

To understand the significance of what Begay has accomplished in becoming the first full-blooded Native American to play in this event, you have to hear something his father said to him when Begay, 27, was growing up.

"I would say to him, `You have to have twice, three times or four times the work ethic than other kids,' " Notah Begay Jr., a project leader for the Indian Health Service's national data center, recalled recently in Albuquerque. " `Just being good enough is not enough for you to be selected.' "

When classmates at a private high school told the teen-ager he would be wasting his time trying to get into Stanford, it did more than inspire him.

"It teed me off," Begay said yesterday.

When Stanford golf coach Wally Goodwin told Begay that he needed to improve on his verbal score on the college entrance exam, Begay walked around high school with his pockets filled with slips of paper on which he had scratched vocabulary words. Begay was one of three students in his graduating class to be accepted at the prestigious university.

Four years later, another student who was breaking down even more barriers came to Stanford. Begay would become good friends with Tiger Woods, and their friendship led to Begay's first trip to Augusta in 1995. Woods was playing in his first Masters as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.

"I was done with my academic responsibilities the last quarter, and Tiger asked me if I would like to watch," Begay said. "I spent two or three hours watching him, and then I went back to Atlanta. I said, `I'll be back when I'm playing.' "

The two recalled that conversation Tuesday, when they played a practice round together here.

"As we were walking down 17 today, I said, `You know, finally it's nice to have you out here where you belong,' " Woods said later in the day. "That's something he's always wanted to do, walk the fairways of one of the biggest tournaments in the world and compete and win them."

Yesterday at Augusta National, Begay had the only hole-in-one of the Par 3 tournament. Today, when he tees off at his first Masters, his father will be here to watch.

Heritage ingrained

His voice remains inside the son, pushing him to stay on the practice range a little longer, prodding him to stay true to his Native American roots while being pulled to the core of a world that flaunts wealth and being a public figure whether he wants to or not.

The image many initially had of Begay hitting balls on the reservation isn't quite true. In fact, his Navajo father had moved into a modest house on the 14th fairway at Ladera when his son was young. Begay, whose parents are divorced, also spent time living on the Isleta reservation with his Pueblo mother, Laura Ansera.

While he has long ago given up certain customs, such as painting his face before going out for competition, he keeps others. He takes cornmeal with him on the road to use in his morning prayers and next month will take part in a religious ceremony back home.

"It definitely becomes more difficult because of the distractions, but that's a big part of my life, an important part of my life," said Begay. "If I ever lose that sense of culture, I think I would have to re-evaluate my priorities. That part of my life will always be there regardless of whether I'm a successful golfer or not."

The scrutiny has intensified for Begay in the two months since he was arrested on a drunken-driving charge in his hometown. After admitting to a judge that it was his second infraction, Begay spent a week in a work-release program in accordance with state law.

Widely criticized for spending his days hitting golf balls at the University of New Mexico before returning to his jail cell for the night, those who know him say that the attention he received has affected the way Begay has played since returning to the tour.

"I don't think it is pressure," said Begay. "I know my actions are going to have a dramatic impact. I think it's an honor and a responsibility. An honor being that I've done enough to warrant significant attention from Native Americans. A responsibility, because it's hard.

"I messed up two months ago and I apologized to everybody for letting them down. I'm trying to regroup and focus and move in the forward direction that I was moving. When I look back, I know that will be a small blemish on a very positive record."

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