BETHESDA -- Notah Begay III was standing on the first tee at Congressional Country Club yesterday afternoon, not pondering his impending pro-am tee shot but trying to figure out an appropriate story angle going into this week's AT&T National.
"How about two old friends coming together to play golf in one of the most multicultural cities in the world?" Begay joked in reference to the tournament's host and his former Stanford teammate, Tiger Woods.
How about this: What ever happened to one of golf's up-and-coming stars?
That is what Begay was considered when he won two tournaments as a rookie in 1999 and two the next year, earning more than $3 million in prize money. In 2000, be became the first full-blooded American Indian to play in the Masters.
This is what Begay, 34, has become: a player whose career was derailed by chronic back problems, one who lost his tour card in 2004, used a medical exemption to play in 2005 and is finally heading for surgery on a badly herniated disc in October.
"It's been a year-to-year-out struggle to try and play healthy," said Begay, who received a sponsor's exemption to play this week. "I've not played one healthy year since 2000. It's reflected in my play; my confidence has deteriorated.
"You take confidence for granted when you're winning tournaments and flying in private airplanes and taking enormous appearance fees. The last three or four years has been an exercise in trying to find some stable ground."
Begay went as far as to go overseas last fall and qualify for this year's PGA European Tour. In six events, Begay made the cut three times, his best finish a tie for 31st at the Spanish Open.
"I thought a change of scenery would be good for me," Begay said. "It was fabulous. My wife and I traveled to four continents and about nine countries in under four months. Coming from the Native American culture and seeing these other countries, it was like a history class."
Begay returned to the U.S. two months ago after reinjuring his back, spent some time with physical therapists and tried to play last week, missing the cut at the Travelers Championship, a tournament he had won when it was called the Greater Hartford Open.
His current struggle isn't anything new for Begay, whose name in Navajo means "son ascending a mountain."
"If I came from a lot of money and a lot of entitlement, I think it would be much harder," Begay said. "I grew up playing a public golf course. Going back to the basics was not that difficult an adjustment. The things that suffered the most is that you start to question your ability and why you can't seem to get back on your feet as far as performance."
Even if Begay doesn't regain his health or his status on the PGA Tour, his stature in the American Indian community has grown beyond his accomplishments on the golf course.
In 2005, Begay established a foundation in his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., to help American Indian youngsters through what has become a 30-week soccer program on the San Felipe Pueblo reservation, as well as co-sponsoring a high school golf team on the Navajo reservation.
"Our aim is to offset the adverse effects that diabetes is having on the Native American community," said Begay, who played soccer, basketball and golf in high school. "Introduce these kids to a game like soccer and they're getting intense physical activity three to four times a week."
Begay has also spent the past couple of years putting together two golf-related projects: a $15 million course on the Eastern Band Cherokee reservation in North Carolina and a $100 million destination golf and gambling resort on the Comanche Nation reservation in Oklahoma.
"I'm delighted that my Stanford education is being put to use in coming up with business plans and trying to create economic sustainability for Native American communities," said Begay, who graduated with a degree in economics.
It was at Stanford that Begay met Woods. Their friendship blossomed when Woods, a freshman, beat Begay, then a senior and a three-time All-American. The bet was that if Woods won, he wouldn't have to carry the older player's bags on road trips.
"In a year, I taught him everything I knew," Begay joked yesterday.
Begay said he didn't go through his famous buddy to get a sponsor's exemption this week, applying to the tournament director on the basis of his four tour wins as well as his recent struggles to get healthy.
"You've got to be able to separate the personal and professional aspects of our careers," Begay said.
Someday, Begay hopes to not need sponsor's exemptions to get into tournaments. Others have gone through similar droughts brought about by injuries, but rarely has anyone recaptured the magic to the same degree.