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Hitting the fairway every time

VERONA, N.Y. – Coming in 10 under par, Hunter Mahan and Cristie Kerr beat a field of PGA and LPGA stars to win the third annual Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge. Their final score was two better than the runner-up pairing of Rickie Fowler and Annika Sorenstam.

“Well she was in it to win it today,” Mahan joked about his partner during the check presentation.

This year’s event, held again at Atunyote Golf Club at Turning Stone Resort & Casino, was a little different than last year. The format changed from skins to a mixed team, best ball format, and the laid back nature of the charity event made for more crowd interaction and banter between the players.

Players signed autographs – Sorenstam, who had 72 career wins when retiring in 2008, even signed a fan’s shoe – and after hitting a ball into the weeds said, “whoever finds it can keep it.” Fans waded through waist high weeds to find the ball.

And the banter started before the first ball was teed off when Anthony Kim, who has three PGA Tour wins and is currently ranked No. 11 in the Official World Golf Ranking, joked to reporters that he and his teammate, Morgan Pressel, who has two LPGA Tour wins and is currently ranked at 17, are “here to win.”

Begay III even got in on the banter when on Hole 5 he joked to the crowd that he may win the skin, then said, “Oh wait, that was last year.”

Another new aspect of this year’s Challenge was the Course Crew, which gave 14 Native American youth the opportunity to experience various facets involved with running and covering a golf tournament. Sporting “Begay’s Brigade” T-shirts, some participants announced the players at the beginning of the challenge, while others carried score boards alongside the players.

Devin Jimenez, 19, of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, an event sponsor, was nervous to use the microphone, but said experiences like that will help her in school as she studies to be an actress.

Benjamin Shendo, 21, Jemez/Cochiti Pueblo, served as a chaperone to the younger Course Crew participants and as a score board carrier for the winning pair.

“They play a beautiful game of golf.” He noted how Begay has given the youth good footsteps to follow in. He also stressed the importance of getting kids outside their “bubble” and getting them to try new things, even if it’s new foods, like oysters, which some of the kids had never even seen before this trip.

“It’s a whole new environment coming from a desert setting,” Shendo said.

Eryana Duro, 15, of San Manuel, is interested in a career in journalism. She has done work on her high school’s newspaper and took the Course Crew as an opportunity to get some writing experience.

Devin and Eryana said the best part of being involved with Course Crew was learning about other tribes.

“We are getting to learn about their culture and how they do their ceremonies.” Eryana said.

“It makes us want to do more research about our heritage; being missionized we lost a lot of that stuff,” Devin said. “Our family is working very hard to bring back the language and culture.”

Other Course Crew kids came from Oneida Indian Nation, a sponsor of the event; San Felipe Pueblo; To’hajiilee and the Salt River Pima.

But the kids weren’t the only ones thinking about their heritage. Fowler, who has finished second on the PGA Tour twice as of June 2010 and is currently ranked No. 34, is one-quarter Navajo.

“This is part of who I am and I definitely want to be able to give back to my people,” Fowler’s grandmother is full Navajo. He said getting to know Begay and being able to play at the Challenge has made him want to get closer to the Native part of his heritage.

But in the end, the day was about the kids, the foundation and helping Begay raise money to combat Type 2 diabetes and obesity in Native American children. After the players finished, a check for $1.25 million was presented to the foundation.

“When we can all come together to raise money for someone else’s charity, it’s a great opportunity,” Pressel said. “It’s one thing to write a check; it’s another to be here for Notah.”

And those close to Begay never thought the kid with big dreams would accomplish so much.

“He had big dreams since he was a little kid saying he wanted to be on the PGA Tour,” said his father, Notah Begay Jr. “We on his NB3 consulting group never envisioned,” that the foundation would grow as it has. “He is a true Native American innovator; he has a vision of what he wants to do with the underserved.” He said the Course Crew is proof of how far the foundation has come.

“It’s really amazing to have a voice and to have the drive to do this for all youth,” Devin said.

“He’s doing something good for us,” Eryana said.

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