GOLF OPENS DOOR FOR NOTAH BEGAY
Native Peoples Magazine
May/June 2011, pp. 29-31
BY DANIEL GIBSON
HE PLAYS A GAME TO MAKE A LIVING, but for Native professional golfer Notah Begay, life is more than a sport. A successful businessman and head of a nonproﬁt foundation focused on improving young Native Americans' health and wellness, Begay is a model of hard work, dedication, determination and approaching life with an education, a plan and a passion.
“The biggest achievement of my life, to date, has been the degree I earned at Stanford," he noted in a recent conversation in Phoenix, where he was playing in a golf tournament. “As far as golf goes, I'd say it was representing my country at the Presidents Cup and the Walker Cup. But I consider what I've done in community service far more important than what I’ve achieved on the golf course. Building infrastructure and creating concepts and projects that establish sustainability models within our communities with measurable outcomes, that’s far more important that winning any golf tournament." However, he acknowledges, “Everything good in my life comes from golf.“
And it began early. Begay—whose mother is of mixed San Felipe and Isleta Pueblo heritage, and whose father is of Navajo descent—grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with two brothers and two sisters. He recalls, “My dad used to play in a BIA (Bureau of lndian Affairs) league at the University of New Mexico Golf Course, and my brother Clint and I would tag along. That is how we ﬁrst got interested. Then we went to a small two-day (golf) camp and I got hooked.”
WORKING, & GOLFING, HARD FOR SUCCESS
Begay and his family lived right next to Ladera Golf Course in Albuquerque. “I could hop the fence and be on the greens," Begay remembers. “I was nine years old when I asked the head pro there, Don Zamora, for a job. I waited for him one night in the parking lot and asked if l could work there. I said I wasn't looking to be paid, just the opportunity to practice. So I'd show up at 5 a.m. every summer morning and pick up trash, clean toilets, collect golf-ball baskets, sweep patios—pretty much anything that needed to be done—for a few hours. And then I’d play all day, until 6 p.m." The next day, he'd do it all over again. “I found out I was good at it. When I was I2 or so, I remember thinking that if I worked hard enough and became good enough, I could get a scholarship to college.”
When he was accepted into a highly regarded college preparatory school. The Albuquerque Academy, Begay was well on his way. "I had a phenomenal middle-school and high-school education at the Academy, which gave me the foundation to move on to Stanford and to be successful there,” he says. “At the Academy, very early on they plant the idea in your mind of going to college. I knew that golf was going to be my only way to get there. So I worked hard at it, and by the time I was I7, I was the number-one-ranked junior player in America.”
In fact, Begay made the Academy’s varsity golf team as a sixth-grader, but he couldn’t actually play until he was in the eighth grade.
“I won two state championships and led the team to a state championship in my senior year,” he says. “It was a good place for me and set me up for a lot of the things I'm doing now." But, he says, Albuquerque Academy is a school with a lot of wealthy students, and that posed some challenges. He recalls that his dad would drive him to school in the family's beater pickup truck. Begay would have his father drop him off before the last leg so he wouldn't be seen arriving in the old vehicle.
“I struggled with my identity and my comfort level," Begay says. “Socially, I really stuck out, because I was Native American, and, on top of that, poor. But I now appreciate what it taught me. It made me stronger and taught me how to get along with all kinds of people, which is a key to my success today. It is also what has driven me to be so active in giving back—doing motivational talks for Native youth, our Foundation work and the network I've built over the years to try to push Native Americans forward socially, politically and economically."
At Stanford, Begay became a three-time All-American and helped the team to a national championship in 1994. His roommate was Tiger Woods.
“Tiger and I became good friends when he was about I2 years old. We were the only minorities playing nationally in elite-level junior golf. We'd see each other at tournaments, and his father Earl kind of adopted me and looked after me, because my parents couldn’t afford to travel,“ Begay recalled. “Tiger and I became great friends. We still talk almost every day, and I just spent ﬁve days at his house with him. He's not a golfer to me, just a good friend. I've tried to be supportive of him, and act as an honest and objective sounding board for him as he goes through this transition period.“
Graduating from Stanford with a degree in economics, Begay found immediate success on the PGA Tour, including nomination as Rookie of the Year. He was one of only three players ever to win multiple PGA tournaments in their ﬁrst two years on the circuit—along with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. He was ranked in the world's top 20 and had achieved some monumental things as a golfer, including representing the United States in the Walker Cup and Presidents Cup tournaments. Then, the wheels came off.
FINDING STRENGTH THROUGH ADVERSITY
“I herniated a disc in my back right after the 2000 season,“ Begay says. “I haven't played a fully healthy year since, but I moved on. It was tough. I went through some major bouts of depression. I went through an identity crisis, because everything I had known was afﬁxed to golf—my persona, my recognition, my income, my livelihood. I did what my mom always advised: turn inward to my culture and traditions, and toward our people for the answers. I really began to participate more in our dances and our customs.”
Begay’s public ﬁrst name. Notah, is derived from the Navajo word for “Almost There” (naa-teh), and he also has a private name. Morning Star, from his mother’s family. "I spent part of my childhood on the Isleta Reservation and at San Felipe Pueblo near Albuquerque, and on the Navajo Reservation near Window Rock," Begay says. “It was very important to my mother that I understood the traditions and the culture, so as I grew up I would always have an understanding of where I came from. I still dance almost every year at San Felipe. They have maintained a tremendous amount of their culture, and it is a source of strength for me."
His inability to golf at a championship level led him to more community service. “I began doing lots of motivational talks, golf clinicsand things like that. I poured myself back into Indian Country and came out of this at the back end a much better person and with a much greater understanding of the Native American landscape and condition."
The discipline and dedication needed to succeed on the golf course hold great lessons for Native youth. says Begay. “I was spending I2 to I4 hours a day at the golf course when Iwas a kid. That was time I wasn‘t out on the streets getting into trouble. It's only been 10 years or so since golf made inroads into Indian Country, but there are now 85 Native-owned courses in the country. We need to utilize these resources to engage our kids in positive activities that keep them out of trouble.
"I look at someone like Rickie Fowler (who is half Navajo)," Begay continues. “He is the Tiger Woods of golf right now: the number-one collegiate golfer this year, as a freshman. As a rookie on the PGA Tour, he ﬁnished 31st on the money list and made the Ryder Cup team. Many of our kids have difficulties making the transition from their state or regional success to the collegiate and national level, but my experience and Rickie's show it can be done. Often times it has nothing to do with their physical abilities, which are as good as anyone’s. There is something missing. A lot of it has to do with historically low graduation rates, low test scores and so forth. Lots of Division I college coaches won’t take the chance on awarding scholarships to Native students based on this history. And yet, the best training ground for most athletes is in college. That is where you have access to good facilities, good coaching and good competition. We need to be able to make this transition to college graduation to see dramatic change in Indian Country."
ESTABLISHING FOUNDATION FOR GOOD HEALTH
In 2005, Begay launched the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3), focused on reducing type 2 diabetes and obesity among Native youth. “The United States has become a country of excess—from the aII-you-can-eat buffet and food portion sizes to food additives. All this has created some really bad habits—for all Americans, but particularly Native Americans. Something had to be done."
Leave it to Begay to do it. Some current NB3 Foundation projects, directed by Crystal EchoHawk, include a golf program for 75 kids of the To'HajiiIee Navajo Chapter west of Albuquerque, and a soccer program at San Felipe Pueblo. The To'HajiiIee kids play at Ladera, while the foundation has built an $85,000 soccer complex and program with training and tournaments at San Felipe. Both programs also stress—and require—achievement in school.
Their success has not gone unnoticed. “We have lots of requests to expand our programs to other tribes, but we can’t mobilize out until the models have been reﬁned and proven to be effective in the long run." Begay says. “We are doing more research, collecting more data and processing it, to make sure we have the right pieces on the table. We expect to have this model perfected within three to ﬁve years that we can then outsource to tribes, whether they have money to contribute or not. Our communities have a history of programs coming and going according to grant cycles, or external agendas. We need a model to develop programs internally, with the community working together. People want change, but often they don’t want to work for it. That's not how we work. We push for parents to become involved, the elders and all the internal attributes of the community. We are asking them to do this on behalf of their children."
To expand its work, the foundation is seeking additional “blue chip" partners. “The San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians has been a monumental supporter, and played an instrumental role in getting us off the ground as an organization," Begay says. “They display a lot of forward thinking and vision, and set a great example of how Native businesses should function. We've also had considerable support from the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (which has hosted an annual fund-raising golf tournament since 2008), Johns Hopkins University (which is doing the medical research and data acquisition) and from Nike's N7 program (which provides funding and equipment).” Additional funding comes from private donors and the communities the foundation works with.
REDEFINING THE CORPORATE LANDSCAPE
Begay's education, intelligence, perseverance and ability to bring together people from all walks of life have also spurred his budding success as an entrepreneur. His NB3 Consulting Group works with tribes to develop golf courses and golf programs. He played a major role in developing the gorgeous Sequoyah National GoIf CIub in Cherokee, North Carolina, and Firekeeper—Begay's ﬁrst “signature” golf course, with the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation—opens north of Topeka, Kansas in May.
However, he notes, “Golf-course design has come largely to standstill nationally. Really, the only sector actually looking at new courses these days are tribal governments. We are pursuing a few projects now—one with the Pascua Yaqui Nation (near Tucson) and with the Navajo Nation (near Flagstaff, Arizona). Our approach is to work with tribes to make sure they come in with a golf property that matches their market and complements their resort. We make sure a tribe does not spend too much or too little, that they get what they need.”
Another Begay endeavor, KivaSun Foods, was launched I8 months ago. It is a beef and seafood company based on the concept of putting clean, healthy and great-tasting food on people's tables. “The beef contains no hormones, additives or antibiotics,” Begay says. Most of the cattle are currently being raised in Texas, but “our hope is to establish Native-owned ranches or to partner with Native ranches to make it a fully integrated Native American beef company, and to establish partnerships with Native-owned resorts to serve their food operations." The company is selling beef from its Web site, www.kivasunfoods.com, and on March 1 rolled out a 10-item retail product line for outlets like Whole Foods and Trader ]oe's. A portion of global sales goes to support the work of the NB3 Foundation.
Today Begay is happily married to his wife of ﬁve years, Apryl, and lives with her and their two children, Antonella, 3, and Santiago, 18 months, in Dallas.
"I work very hard to be a good husband and a good father. I’m proud of that,“ Begay says. And, he hopes to again make his presence felt in professional golf. “I think I have one more good run in me. I plan to see if I can win a few tournaments and get back into that elite level." He is a lifetime member of the PGA based on his past victories, “but I have very limited status on the Tour, which means I will probably only play ﬁve to l0 events this year. I hope to get back to the PGA Tour full-time and work my way back into the upper levels of golf.“
The health struggles haven't been the only setback for the 39-year-old Begay. When he was 27, he was arrested for DUI in Albuquerque. He has tremendous regret for the incident and vowed to never repeat the mistake, but is quick to own up to it. “I had just made over $2 million in one year playing golf and was out with my buddies having a great time," he says. "I thought I was invincible, and made some really bad decisions. I got behind the wheel and hit a parked car. No one was in it and no one was injured, but I spent a week in jail. It was a great learning experience."
Begay concludes on a characteristic up note. "We (Native Americans) are making headway. We’re becoming successful in business, in politics. We're working diligently on improving our education status and social networks. We've established a tremendous network of businesses under the casino-revenue umbrella. The next step is to redefine and set new precedents for Native Americans in the corporate landscape. My goal and aspiration is not to establish a successful business, but to break down barriers standing in the way of Native, non-gaming entrepreneurship." Many would bet on his success.
A NOTAH BEGAY SNAPSHOT
What is your favorite golf course?
St Andrews, in Scotland. I played in the 2000 British Open there and loved it. It's very tough.
What is your favorite animal?
Probably the bear, because of what it represents to Indian people—strength, power, wisdom.
What is your favorite color?
Turquoise blue, like a New Mexico sky. That is the color of our people.
Where is your favorite place?
Wherever my family is—which can be Dallas or a Residence Inn or visiting in New Mexico. I plan to move back to Albuquerque someday. It's important that my kids understand New Mexico and the culture and the nuances of the state. It is such a great place.
What places would you most like to visit?
China and Africa.
Do you have a hobby?
Horse racing. l'm a horse-racing fanatic. My favorite track in the world is Del Mar, in Southern California.
Who from the past would you most like to meet?
The old chiefs—Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph -those guys. They embodied strength and wisdom that was grounded in simplicity. They always made their decisions based on what was best for their people and went through what was probably the most difﬁcult time Indian people will ever face: the transition period.
What bothers you most about non-Natives’ conception of Indians today?
The romanticized images portrayed by Hollywood, which have made it very difficult for non-Natives to see us in roles other than the stereotypes—to see us a successful entrepreneurs, as corporate heads, and simply as modern, contemporary people.