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Junior golf program a success in N.M. Navajo community

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TO’HAJIILEE, N.M. – Notah Begay Jr. realized the need for more youth programs in the Navajo community of To’Hajiilee, located about 30 miles west of Albuquerque. By coincidence, he met a representative of the U.S Golf Association in search of minority communities in need of grant money for athletic programs.

Begay said he could only think of one deserving community – To’Hajiilee.

“I met with a representative, got all the information and wrote the grant,” Begay said. “Almost immediately, the To’Hajiilee Behavioral Health program received $20,000 for a youth program.”

Patrick Lynch, director of the To’Hajiilee Behavioral Health System, met with Begay – father of professional Navajo golfer Notah Begay III – to discuss the most effective youth programs. The grant money for a program falls under the behavioral health program’s requirement for youth substance abuse intervention and education.

Begay, a veteran golfer, and Lynch, an amateur at the time, both agreed to implement a junior golf program for the youth of To’Hajiilee.

“The program is not just for at-risk youth, but all kids interested in learning and playing golf,” Lynch said. “No one had ever considered teaching golf on the reservation, so we took the risk and gave it a shot, and the kids jumped right in.”

“Golf is a critical thinking skill. It teaches a lot about life, about skills and structure. That is what many kids on the reservation are lacking,” said Lynch.

“But we don’t just teach golf, we also connect life skills with the game.”

The program is most active during the summer months, when about 18 students are transported from To’Hajiilee to Albuquerque’s Ladera Golf Course for professional golf instruction and life skills.

Three brothers have been with the program since it started. Richard, Joshua and Kevin Tom play golf for the challenge and the love of the game.

“I think of nothing but the game and making the next shot,” said 14-year-old Kevin.

“We teach the students a scientifically based life skills approach that is designed to help kids make healthy choices about drugs and alcohol,” Lynch said.

According to Lynch, the addition of life skills to the youth program is quite successful – so much so that he receives calls from other tribes asking for assistance in building a similar program.

The program also identifies the talent in the bunch. “We start weeding out the ones that really want to play from those that don’t,” Lynch said.

All three brothers have received many trophies and awards for their talent on the green. They are most thankful for the opportunities the program has offered them, they said.

The first grant was received in 1999 from the USGA, and in 2001 the program received another grant from the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development.

The To’Hajiilee Behavioral Health System now sponsors a benefit golf tournament every year during the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow to fund the program.

The program helped create a golf team at To’Hajiilee High School. Each brother is on the golf team and Begay is the head coach.

Begay said he enjoys working with youth, especially coaching sports such as golf.

“He [Begay] has taught me a lot, and his son, too, because he’s a pro,” Joshua said. Each of the brothers agreed that Begay is a “pretty good coach.”

This season the team won two titles in Espanola and Belen, but missed the state finals competition by 12 strokes. Joshua said the goal for next year is to win state.

Begay said coaching golf satisfies him and working with teenagers keeps him young.

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“Golf helps young people in a number of ways,” Begay said. “You are really not playing against anybody else; you are playing against the course. You match your skill to make par.”

Joshua, 15 and a sophomore at To’Hajiilee High School, said, “When I’m playing I focus on the shot. I just want to score but I need to work on my chipping.”

Begay said most youth on reservations play team sports, such as basketball and football, but not golf and not the Tom brothers – golf is the only sport they are committed to.

Because golf is an individual sport, the young golfers have the ability to concentrate and focus on the game rather than on other players, Begay said.

Like all athletes, Begay said a golfer needs certain values to succeed. Those values include physical and mental capabilities, a spiritual connection and integrity.

Golf is the only sport that does not have a referee and the golfer scores himself, so integrity plays an important role, Begay said.

“I am very proud of the team. They have shown me hard work and it is certainly paying off,” Begay said.

Begay and Lynch agreed that it is difficult for a golf program to succeed on the reservation because no course is available.

“The program would be more successful if it had a course there,” said Begay.

The brothers would like to see a golf course constructed in their community and throughout the reservation.

The program does try to accommodate parents’ schedules and transportation needs, especially if the student is a natural athlete and shows talent.

“The program is good for the youth in To’Hajiilee. I want to teach more kids how to play golf,” Joshua said.

Begay said golf is a game that keeps kids busy and teaches manners and etiquette on the course.

Begay tells his golfers, “If you miss a shot, are you going to get angry and kick your bag or throw your club? No. You are going to focus your anger in a positive way by making a better shot the next time.”

“The game teaches you that if you do a lot of hard work, you will see the benefit of how you play,” Begay said.

Joshua said when he plays he feels good because he is positively representing himself and his community.

Although no girls are on the team or in the program, Begay and Lynch are consistently recruiting more females to join.

Golf is an opportunity especially for females, Begay said, because of scholarship availability.

In the next three years, Begay hopes to help the To’Hajiilee golf team win a state title. He also would like to see a women’s golf team form and start competing in To’Hajiilee.

Begay said his biggest goal is to provide an opportunity for Navajo youth, a shot at a scholarship to play golf at the collegiate level.

The eldest brother, Richard, is a senior this year and has aspirations of playing college golf.

“Golf is the only thing I like to do. I just like to play and would like to play in college and may be even go pro,” Richard said.

“Going from high school to college, you are getting the best from everywhere and it is hard to shine,” Begay said. “But going from college to the pros is even harder; but getting a scholarship, playing college golf then getting a degree, that is an accomplishment in itself.”