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Begay Foundation golf tourney raises funds for Native youth health

VERONA, N.Y. – No matter who wins the Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge Golf Tournament, Indian children will be the real winners.

Tiger Woods, Camilo Villegas, Mike Weir, and Notah Begay III will compete in the second annual Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge, known as the NBIII Challenge, Monday, Aug. 24, at the Oneida Indian Nation’s Atunyote Golf Course at Turning Stone Casino & Resort. Atunyote (uh-DUNE-yote) is an Oneida word that means “eagle.”

Proceeds from the high profile fundraiser support the foundation’s health and wellness programs for Native American youth on Indian reservations.

The event is sponsored by the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation.

Last year’s challenge brought in almost $200,000 for the foundation. With Woods’ star-power, Begay expects to bring in three to four times that much this year.

The relationship between Woods, who is currently ranked No. 1 in the world, and Begay dates back to Stanford University where they were teammates and roommates the mid-90s.

While Begay acknowledged that this personal relationship helped secure Woods’ participation, he said all the participants help support the foundation and thanked them for their generosity.

“It gives us a very strong platform from which we can voice our message of health and wellness for our Native youth. It speaks well of our programs and our communities that are behind us that guys like this, especially Tiger, are willing to take time out of their schedules. Players of this caliber get hundreds of requests every week to play at charity events and it says a lot about what we’re doing that they selected our event.”

But just because the tournament is a fundraiser doesn’t mean the players will be laid back or showing less than their usual competitive edge, Begay said.

“Athletes don’t get to this level without wanting to win every single thing they play, especially guys like Tiger. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing for a Coca Cola, a dollar or $1 million, they want to beat you, so it’s going to be every bit as competitive. Obviously, it’s not a major championship, but we’re going to go after each other and hopefully give the crowd some real solid entertainment.”

The 3,000-ticket event is sold out.

“They’re gone. They probably sold out within the first two weeks primarily because of Tiger – it’s not because of me,” Begay said.

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Begay, who describes himself on his Web site as “1/2 Navajo, 1/4 San Felipe, 1/4 Isleta,” is the only professional Native American golfer on the PGA Tour. He became interested in golf after accompanying his father to a local golf course in Albuquerque, N.M. After graduating from Stanford University in 1995 with a degree in economics, he joined the PGA Tour and is a four-time PGA Tour winner.

But it is his work as an educator and a committed advocate for healthy Native youth that occupies much of his energy these days. Begay started his foundation with his father in 2005. Begay, his family and numerous supporters and tribal partners have worked to impact the lives and well-being of Native American youth in New Mexico and across Indian country.

“Basically, my goal was to pull together tribal resources and reallocate those resources in the forms of programming and sustainable concepts that would benefit the long term health and well-being of our Native youth. The foundation was primarily funded by my own money for the first two or three years,” Begay said. “So I had to get real creative and, thankfully, I had an economics degree to help me do that, and I chose activities that were low in cost, but affective in addressing the cardiovascular and diabetes prevention and obesity issues that I think are prevalent in most Native communities across the country.”

Begay introduced what has become the largest all-Native soccer program in the United States based at the San Felipe Pueblo near Albuquerque. He also initiated a junior and high school golf program in a Navajo community near Albuquerque.

Although the programs are off to a good start, they are not yet self-sustaining. But Begay hopes a new partnership with Johns Hopkins University will help the foundation assess the long term needs of both programs.

Begay faced the same challenges many Native kids continue to face – “walking in two worlds as far as having to be true to the traditions, identity and culture of the Native American side as well as trying to compete and be successful in the non-Indian world, which is where the majority of the businesses and good schools are.”

Begay said he came from a modest family, played with youth clubs purchased at yard sales, and rode buses to tournaments.

“I always felt alone because I was the only Indian on the whole golf course. Going to Stanford was great. I was one of only two Natives in the whole country playing Division I golf,” he said.

What sustained him was the support and tradition of Native people and Native culture.

“That’s what kept me going and it keeps me going today,” Begay said.

His hope for the future is to expand the Notah Begay III Foundation programs throughout the country, especially to the poorer reservations in rural areas.

“We’ll have to continue to do more fundraising and look for creative ways to engage these kids in their own settings. A lot of these kids are living in next to third world conditions. We’re trying to address all of these things and hope to bring on strong partners.”

Editor’s note: Indian Country Today is a division of Four Directions Media, which is owned by Oneida Nation Enterprises, LLC.