In Pursuit Of Excellence
Notah Begay III has been preparing for the PGA Tour for a long time.
Thursday, June 15, 2000
|"What drives me," Begay says, calling up some classical Greek from a long-ago philosophy class, "is arete. The pursuit of excellence. It''s an ideal that you''ll never achieve. There''s always some facet of the game you can improve on."|
In 1984, things at Albuquerque Academy were changing. The headmaster who had run the New Mexico prep school since 1965, when it was boys-only and those boys wore ties, announced his retirement. In the fall, Academy''s junior school, the last bastion of all-boyhood on campus, started admitting girls to the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. And a kid who would become the school''s first American Indian student to graduate, a sixth-grader from Isleta Pueblo named Notah Begay III, completed his first year of studies.
In 1984, I was a high school sophomore at Academy. I don''t remember Notah Begay. (In an interview from his home in Albuquerque last week, he was polite but unimpressed by our shared experience. He didn''t remember me, either.) The junior schoolers registered as little more than a swarm in the periphery, a chest-high swirl of khaki pants and backpacks whose racket spilled out onto the campus commons at the same time every day.
He certainly wasn''t yet a celebrity. Golf didn''t even get a page in the yearbook that year, and although his game was already a thing of wonder, Begay''s cherubic little mug wouldn''t have graced it anyway. Sixth-graders didn''t get to play organized sports. Besides, Academy''s inclinations ran toward the traditional--not lacrosse and crew but football, basketball, baseball, soccer. Until Begay showed up, Academy''s golf team claimed no golfers of note--just a small, motley collection of the most unlikely athletes, whom the rest of us suspected possessed no other athletic skills or were maybe just looking for an easy varsity letter.
Begay eventually played golf there, of course, as well as basketball and soccer. But at Academy he got a preparatory education that went beyond the classroom and the fairway. He was learning how to hold his own in the alabaster halls of money and prestige, how to walk comfortably among the children of the wealthy even though he woke up every morning in a poor community on the other side of town and got dropped off at school in an old beater. Perfect training for attendance at Stanford and a career in professional golf. And just as it would be later, it was his athletic ability that gained him entree into the school''s highly competitive society.
"It wasn''t necessarily a shock," says Begay, now 27, of his first few years at Academy. "It was more I was just uncomfortable to a certain extent in that sort of atmosphere. I just definitely kept to myself. I didn''t have too many friends ''til eighth grade, when sports started. I was able to make the top teams in basketball and soccer, and of course varsity in golf. Kids I never would have become friends with gained respect for me because I could compete athletically. That was my way of fitting in."
On the Rez
As most states in the union go, New Mexico is a pretty racially integrated place--Anglos are a minority there--but there is no sharper illustration of the race/class divide than the contrast between the state''s Indian reservations and Academy''s manicured campus with its Natatorium and 16 tennis courts. Begay spent seven years with his mother on Isleta Pueblo, a community of adobes and dirt roads on the banks of the Rio Grande just south of Albuquerque. For a while they lived on welfare, hardly an anomaly on the reservation.
His father, who is Navajo, lived on Albuquerque''s west side, where he worked for Indian Health Service and played golf at Ladera Golf Course in a twilight league. At age 6 Begay tripped out to the course with him. And loved it. It suited his competitive nature perfectly.
"The thing that attracted me to golf was that I won," he says. "I beat everyone when I was 10 years old in the state. When I was 11 I don''t think I lost a tournament in the summertime. That was it. I don''t know if I want to call it--it was that winning feeling."
Brute psychological force took over when natural ability ran short. "The competitive aspect of anything I never really shied away from. I wasn''t necessarily the most talented golfer or had the best equipment or mechanics," he admits, "but I hated to lose, so I overcame a lot of deficiencies because of sheer desire."
Once he was hooked on golf, he took it everywhere--even out to Window Rock on the Navajo reservation, where he spent a month out of each summer all the way through high school visiting relatives. Named for an eroded sandstone formation at the edge of town, Window Rock to the tourist''s eye is a wonderland, a carnival of distant pink and purple mesas, of pale looming buttes and red rocks in bizarre arrangements, as if they were playthings left scattered by a giant child. But to live there? There''s a supermarket. Some video stores and convenience stores. The ruts in the dirt parking lots are deep and dry in summer, impossible in winter. The 25 miles from Gallup (where the nearest bars are) to Window Rock are some of the deadliest in the state.
And so, asked what he would do on his summer visits there, Begay answers with a touch of bitterness, "Nothing." No golf courses in Window Rock.
Then, "I used to hit balls out in the mesa. I''d have to go out and pick ''em out of the sagebrush."
It''s Just a Little Philosophy
Back in school, Begay continued striving to perfect his game. Among his mentors in high school were golf coach Bob Verardo ("He did a good job. He stayed out of the way") and math teacher Charles Wong, an intensely intelligent, erudite man with a scraggly goatee who spoke several languages, suffered no fools, and encouraged students in all seriousness to become "mathletes."
"He was a hard-ass," Begay recalls. "I mean, people hated him because he pushed them so hard. That''s the kind of guy that gets the best out of me, because they challenge you to push yourself.
"He was very comfortable with himself, which is a very hard trait to find in people today. He wore the same suit every day. There was the blue corduroy jacket and the tan corduroy jacket."
"Mainstream society has forced a lot of people to become preoccupied with appearance," Begay remarks. "What matters to people is what they see on the surface instead of the substance, the core or the nucleus of the character. To find someone very secure with themselves or their placement in the world is rare."
Besides a philosophical streak, Begay harbors a hard-ass streak of his own. When he talks about competing and winning, which he does a lot during our short conversation, it sounds like he''s describing an art form, something abstract and intellectual. At the same time it has a harsh, unforgiving quality. Begay doesn''t cut himself too much slack.
"What drives me," he says, calling up some classical Greek from a long-ago philosophy class, "is arete. The pursuit of excellence. It''s an ideal that you''ll never achieve. There''s always some facet of the game you can improve on. It''s just a philosophy."
Asked if he ever had to cope with the shock of coming in second or worse as he entered more difficult levels of play, he answers no. "Because I always felt like I could be number one," he explains. "If I wasn''t winning, it was because I wasn''t working hard enough."
The punishing drive to work harder than anyone else paid off. Golf was his ticket to Stanford, where he played under coach Wally Goodwin with Tiger Woods and Casey Martin, a talented golfer with a debilitating disease whose legal battle to use a golf cart in tournaments has made headlines. Begay got a degree in economics in 1995 and was named All-American Player under Goodwin, then went on to stun the golf world in 1998 by shooting a 59 on the Nike Tour, the lowest score ever attained in professional golf. Last year he won two tournaments on the PGA tour, the Reno-Tahoe Open and the Michelob Championship in Kingsmill, Virginia. This year he tied for fourth in the AT&T Pro-Am and became the first Indian to play in the Masters.
He''s been a little off his game leading up to the U.S. Open here this weekend. But it''s hard to imagine him staying down for long.
"I wasn''t necessarily the most talented golfer or had the best equipment or mechanics," Begay admits, "but I hated to lose, so I overcame a lot of deficiencies because of sheer desire."
Role With the Punches
It was inevitable that Begay would become a role model for Indian kids. Last fall, Albuquerque had a Notah Begay III Day that saw reservation kids being bused in for a clinic with Begay. In May he finished a tour of the Navajo reservation that included stops in Shiprock, Gallup and Ganado. Ganado made the papers recently when a local girl whose family doesn''t own a telephone won an iMac in a contest, a story that pointed out the disparity between those benefiting from the economic boom and those left out of it.
Typically, Begay takes a stoic view of his second job as ambassador to Indian Country. "It''s a pretty big responsibility," he says. "I try to make the right decisions and do the right thing and live by the right philosophy. But to have people put you in that sort of position, it''s difficult at times. Not only as a professional athlete is my life under the microscope, but from a non-golf-related standpoint it''s under the microscope. Everything''s going to be judged. It''s just something I''ve come to accept."
In January the scrutiny intensified when Begay left Billy''s Long Bar in Albuquerque, got into his car and smacked into another car in the parking lot. His drunk driving arrest made a splash in itself, but the really exciting media moment came later. At his arraignment Begay ignored his attorneys'' advice and confessed to the judge that he''d been pulled over for driving under the influence once before in Arizona. That admission landed him a sentence of seven nights in jail, but more than that it created a sense of wonder at his decision to face the consequences of his actions without an army of attorneys to protect him. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote a splenetic, albeit funny, piece blasting the press for fawning over Begay''s honesty and mocked the whole proceedings, pointing out that during his sentence Begay was on work release for 12 hours each day (and yes, he spent them golfing).
But Begay takes his responsibility seriously, even if it is sometimes more burden than privilege. "The legacy I want to leave behind when it''s over," he muses, "is to get the most out of my ability, number one, and number two, to inspire and encourage the young generation to get the most out of themselves."
Those monotonous summers at Window Rock made their impression. "I just feel like we need to place more of an importance on creating programs that provide kids with positive alternatives to the use of their time," he says. "I mean, if you''ve got a group of kids in the summertime who don''t have anything to do, nothing that''s attracting them or harnessing their talents, or giving them a chance to learn a new activity, they''re going to do things that aren''t good for them.
"The Native American people as a whole need to start looking internally for solutions. The time has come to stop blaming external factors for our shortcomings."
He''d like to see recreational facilities and arts programs spring up on the reservations, and it sounds like he might one day be the guy who helps pull it together.
"I really only want to stay competitive [in golf] for about 20 years," he says, "then move into something to help Native Americans. I don''t really like politics and the type of people the political game attracts. I don''t know if I could do what it takes to be successful in that arena. But I haven''t ruled that out."
In the meantime, Notah Begay III remains an inspiration to anyone whose dreams run against the odds. Maybe there''s a kid outside Window Rock right now with a second-hand Big Bertha and a few balls, lining up a shot while the dark clouds and the restless breeze of a summer thunderstorm roll in over the mesa, taking the swing and sailing the ball clear over the stiffly rustling rabbitbrush and into a parallel universe.
By the time you read this, Notah Begay will have probably already teed off for the first round of the U.S. Open. He is paired with Steve Pate of North Ranch, CA and Lee Porter of Greensboro, NC. Their scheduled tee time on Thursday is 10:50am.