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Dry Run With an inspiring win in Memphis, Notah Begay III took an important step in his comeback from an embarrassing drunken-driving conviction

July 03, 2000
July 03, 2000

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July 3, 2000

Dry Run With an inspiring win in Memphis, Notah Begay III took an important step in his comeback from an embarrassing drunken-driving conviction

Mr. Begay? I think he's in the bar."

This is an article from the July 3, 2000 issue Original Layout

The restaurant hostess is right. Notah Begay III is in the bar,
standing at a tall cocktail table with his younger brother
Clint, but he's not drinking. Notah hasn't touched alcohol since
the night of Jan. 19, when he crashed his car into a Jaguar in
the parking lot of an Albuquerque nightspot. But dining out has
its rituals, and Step One is a 30-minute wait in a room lined
with bottles of clear and colored liquids. "I still go to clubs
and bars with my friends," Begay says. "I've just had to make
some minor adjustments."

When golf pro talks about adjustments it's usually a matter of
grip pressure or ball position, the sort of stuff that helped
Begay win last week's FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. In
Begay's case, though, an adjustment is telling the barmaid he'll
have soda water or a Coke. It's having someone on hand to drive
his car--this summer it's Clint--because Notah's New Mexico
driver's license has been suspended for a year.

"I don't miss it," Begay says, "it" being alcohol. The beer
before dinner? The glass of wine with a good meal? The
celebratory brews after a low round? They're history. His blood
alcohol level is holding steady at 0.00, down from a reported
January high of 0.21, more than twice the legal limit in New
Mexico.

The people who rolled their eyes in late February, when the
27-year-old touring pro served a seven-day, nights-only jail
sentence for his second DWI in five years, will surely ask:
That's it? At the very least, the case seems to call for the
usual 12-step cleansing: "My name is Notah, and I'm an
alcoholic." Begay, they observe cautiously, is half Navajo-half
Pueblo and spent much of his early life on the Isleta Pueblo
Reservation in New Mexico. The image of the drunken Indian still
has legs. But Begay has not joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he
says the PGA Tour-approved psychologist who counseled him after
his January conviction concluded that he was not, in fact, a
problem drinker.

Another restaurant, another city. It's Jan. 12, precisely one
week before Begay will dent a stranger's Jaguar in Albuquerque;
he is in the lounge of the Benihana restaurant in Honolulu's
Hilton Hawaiian Village. Seated at a cocktail table while
visiting with acquaintances, he takes an occasional sip from a
big bottle of Asahi beer. But once he's in the dining room, he
switches to Coke. He seems more interested in food than drink,
ordering a teppanyaki dinner that includes steak, shrimp and
lobster.

The conversation is upbeat: Begay talks about his prospects in
that week's Sony Open, his two wins as a PGA Tour rookie in
1999, the Nike-tour-record 59 he fired the year before, his
memories of Stanford, where he roomed with Tiger Woods and
played No. 2 alongside Casey Martin on the 1994 NCAA
championship team. He talks about a commercial he has just shot
for Nike apparel in which he walks along with fellow pro Ted
Tryba looking "calm, cool and collected" in his Dri-Fit shirt
and slacks. To Begay, who decries the classic movie stereotype
of Indians as whooping savages, the image he is projecting is
gratifying. "I don't claim to be an activist," he says, "but I'm
an advocate. I try to promote positive images and break down
stereotypes."

Some of the crew members who shot the commercial are at a nearby
table. "I think by the time he left the shoot he'd made friends
with just about everybody," says Nicole LaTell, an account
supervisor for the advertising agency producing the spot. "And
he's actually a very good actor," adds Bill Karow, the art
director.

The marketing people aren't yet sure how to use Begay. They know
he lived for part of his childhood in an adobe house with
plug-in heaters and no hot water. They know his grandfather,
Notah Begay, was a Marine and one of 375 Navajo "code talkers"
who used their tribal language to transmit secret information
for the U.S. government in World War II. They also have heard
how, when Begay tied the single-round NCAA tournament record
with a 10-under-par 62 at the 1994 collegiate championship, he
played with streaks of red clay under his eyes--a Native
American custom for those embarking on a long journey. On the
other hand Begay was raised a Roman Catholic, has a B.A. in
economics and contemplates the teachings of Greek philosophers.
And forget the plug-in heaters; last year Begay won more than a
million dollars on the Tour.

"He is a dream to work with," Karow says. "He's not like Charles
Barkley in the old commercial. Notah is saying, I am a role
model."

A week later Begay will be in an Albuquerque courtroom, pleading
guilty to aggravated drunken driving. He will tell the judge
that he has a long-forgotten DWI conviction in Arizona. The
guilty plea will mean jail time.

The result, says Begay, was "embarrassment." He is seated in a
big leather armchair in the living room of the adobe-style tract
house he bought in Albuquerque a year ago, his stockinged feet up
on the coffee table. He has removed the contact lenses from his
tired eyes and put on wire-rimmed specs that give him the look of
a tribal elder. "I let down a lot of people," he says. "Anyone
who has had any direct interaction with reservation life
understands that alcoholism is a serious issue." But until Begay
was arrested, it was an abstract issue to most Americans--the
stuff of census tables and scientific papers. Begay carries a
load of guilt, he says, "for feeding into that stereotype" of the
drunken Indian.

He also knows that his minor celebrity turned a fender bender
into a national story. "I don't take the attention personally,"
he says, staring at his feet on the table. "It's human nature to
slow down to see the accident."

It's odd to hear Begay compare himself to roadside wreckage.
Most people find him to be cheerful, outgoing, intelligent and
droll. He is also adaptable--he lives on the cusp of three
cultures. From the time he was in sixth grade on, Begay's
divorced parents, with a little financial support from the
Navajo Nation, paid his tuition at the Albuquerque Academy, New
Mexico's most exclusive prep school. He arrived at his new
school in his father's old Chevy pickup, wondering if he could
ever fit in. He ultimately did, but Begay says it took him two
years to adjust to the Academy, where many of the students
received big allowances and were rewarded with new cars when
they reached driving age. He had a simple strategy for surviving
in those unfamiliar circumstances. "You mind your own business,"
he explains. "It's what I do now, mind my own business and work
hard."

Begay used the same formula to find his way in the golf world,
where the list of notable Native American players used to begin
and end with Rod Curl, the part-Wintu pro who won the 1974
Colonial. Notah and Clint learned the game at the Ladera Golf
Course, a desert muni where their dad, Notah Begay Jr., played.
Notah did odd jobs for the Ladera pro in return for range time,
and by the time he was a teenager he was a familiar, if
atypical, face at junior golf events in Colorado, Arizona and
California. He traveled alone to save money, sleeping on the
sofas and daybeds of "friends of friends," he says.

Begay's Stanford years figured to be more of the same--the
outsider trying to fit in--until he found himself, with Woods
and Martin, on the most inclusive golf team in America. He
recites the now familiar litany: "A couple of Asian guys, a
disabled guy, an American Indian guy and an African-American..."
Begay hesitates. "Well, Tiger's like 10 different things." The
Stanford golfers practiced, played and studied together, and
they even had their own intramural basketball team, coached by
Martin and floor-generaled by Begay, who had been a high school
basketball and soccer star. "Tiger used to get pissed because we
wouldn't let him play," he says with a laugh. "He'd walk right
past Casey and check himself in at the scorer's table." Telling
these stories, Begay practically glows. "I was very, very lucky
to be part of that."

The gulf between reservation life and college life is vast, but
the two worlds have something in common--notable degrees of
substance abuse. On the Isleta Pueblo Reservation, a sprawling
community on the wooded banks of the Rio Grande just south of
Albuquerque, Begay grew up in a culture that condoned heavy
drinking at social functions. "At that age you don't realize the
negative health aspects," he says. "You think that's the way
you're supposed to have a good time." At Stanford liquor was the
lubricant of his assimilation. "I was insecure about my poor
background, my friends, the clothes I wore, my appearance." He
says drinking with his college friends made him feel "normal."

On the other hand, had he taken one of those 10-question
newspaper quizzes about alcoholism--"Do you need a drink when
you get up in the morning? Do you conceal your drinking from
friends and family?"--he would have passed. "My drinking never
interfered with anything," he says. "I never missed practice or
meetings. I didn't fail classes." Begay was a three-time
All-America on the golf team. He says, "I've never looked to
alcohol to solve my problems."

But aren't Native Americans genetically doomed to alcoholism?
Doesn't Begay subscribe to the one-drink-of-firewater-is-poison
theory?

In a word: no. Begay, along with many researchers, believes that
alcohol abuse is related to depression. History, then, and not
genetics, explains why such a high percentage of Native
Americans has problems with alcohol. "If you were marched off
your land at gunpoint and stripped of your language and culture,
I think you would have some sort of inferiority complex," Begay
says, a reference to the Long Walk of 1864, when the U.S.
government force-marched some 8,000 Navajos across 300 miles of
desert from Arizona to Fort Sumner, N.Mex. "Throw in
unemployment equivalent to that in Third World countries, no
economic activity..." Begay puts his feet on the floor and leans
forward. "To build character, independence and pride, you have
to be able to support your family and those around you. If you
couldn't do that"--he raises his eyebrows quizzically--"wouldn't
you be pretty discouraged?"

A high sun beats down on the private practice ground at the
University of New Mexico's Championship Course. Notah is hitting
balls from a black shag bag while Clint watches from the shade
of a golf cart. Clint is as big as an offensive lineman, but he
aspires to be a club pro when he finishes school at the
University of Hawaii-Hilo. This summer he is driving and
caddying for his brother and sharing Notah's house in Albuquerque.

From the 10th tee several youngsters playing in a junior golf
tournament spot Notah and scramble down a hill to get his
autograph. One of them is particularly excited. "Man," he
gushes, "this is everything I've dreamed of!" When they have
departed, Notah grins and says, "That kid must not have very big
dreams."

Begay has always had big dreams. When he was a sophomore at the
Albuquerque Academy, he wrote the Navajo Nation to ask for
scholarship money. With the tribe's help, he explained, he could
continue at the Academy and then qualify for and earn a degree
from a top university. "From that moment on," he wrote, "the
children will have a Navajo role model on which they can base
their personal goals."

The day after his arrest last January, Begay acted as if those
words were written in the desert sky for everyone to see. The
court had no way of knowing that he had an out-of-state DWI, but
Begay told his lawyers, in an emotional strategy meeting, that
he planned to volunteer the information. "There was a lot riding
on the decision," he says. "My sponsorships, my endorsements, my
place on the Tour, the allegiance of my fan base, my
credibility." Especially his credibility. "Which is why I felt
an obligation to own up to it. It was an opportunity to use my
own shortcomings for a pure example of how to handle a huge
lapse of judgment."

The prosecutor was amazed; he called Begay's confession "a real
breath of fresh air." The judge was amazed too; she couldn't
recall a defendant being so forthright. But under New Mexico law
they could not spare Begay the embarrassment of incarceration,
probation, community service, a $1,000 fine and random drug
testing. "The only redemption I'll have," Begay says, "is if,
when my life is done, my contributions to Native Americans and
society at large outweigh my mistakes."

Begay may turn heads these days in his sponsor-provided
sportswear, but several times a year he sings and dances in
tribal dress at the San Felipe Pueblo Reservation in northern
New Mexico. He remains close to his father, a project leader
maintaining the national patient information system for the
Indian Health Service, and to his mother, Laura Ansera, a
juvenile-justice specialist working for the federal government
in Washington, D.C. Begay has started his own fund to raise
money for scholarships and family emergencies on the reservation.

His game, meanwhile, has recovered from the three-month slump
that followed his jail stint. Begay finished 22nd at the U.S.
Open two weeks ago and followed up in Memphis with his third
Tour win in 10 months. His 13-under-par effort at the TPC at
Southwind edged Chris DiMarco and Bob May by a stroke and erased
any doubts that Begay could play as well on the wagon as he had
played off it. The key stroke was a flop shot from just off the
16th green on Sunday, a delicate effort that checked up two feet
from the hole for birdie. Asked if he had used his lob wedge,
Begay said yes, adding, "That's the shot that got me out of
Albuquerque."

Begay is known of course for his switch-putting--he putts either
righthanded or lefthanded so that he never has a slicing
break--and it is good putting that has gotten him up to 19th on
the Tour money list. The $540,000 paycheck was not uppermost in
Begay's mind, however, when he tapped in for par and victory on
the last hole in Memphis. "It's been a tough year for me," he
told ABC's Judy Rankin in a greenside interview, his voice
choking with emotion. Notah thanked Clint and then thanked his
family and friends in New Mexico. Finally, he flashed his boyish
grin and said, "We're going to have a nice dinner tonight."

Up for another meal? All right, but not the Memphis victory
dinner. We're at T-Bonz Restaurant in Augusta, Ga. It's Masters
week, April 2000, and the place is jammed. Begay's table
includes a half-dozen close friends. He studies the menu, and
his eyes finally settle on the prime rib, which he loves. A
voice says, "Can I get you something to drink with dinner?"

Begay looks up. "A Coke, please." The orders continue around the
table: "Evian, please, with a twist...iced tea...iced tea...a
Sprite, please...ginger ale...." No one asks for beer or wine.

"I thought that was such a cool gesture on their part," Begay
will say later. "They did that to make me feel comfortable." A
shy smile lights his face. "I've grown leaps and bounds in my
personal perception of who I am. I'm no longer insecure about my
place in the social network."

Judging from his performance in Memphis, Begay needn't feel
insecure about his place on the Tour, either.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERCOLOR PHOTO: TODD BIGELOW/AURORA WAYWARD DRIVER Since his license was suspended, Notah has depended on his brother Clint (right) to drive for him.
"I let down a lot of people," Begay says. "Anyone who has had
interaction with reservation life knows that alcohol is a
serious issue."