Keepers of the fire

MAYETTA, Kan. – Four-time PGA Tour winner Notah Begay III was guest of honor June 15 at Prairie Band Casino & Resort as he and the Potawatomi Nation of Kansas unveiled their vision for a premier $8.5 million 240-acre destination golf course.

“It’s going to be a challenging course,” Begay said. “Everything’s so subtle, but it’s not flat.”

The Firekeeper Golf Course will be just north of the Prairie Band Casino & Resort, 15 minutes from the capital city of Topeka. Construction began in May after the tribal general council approved the course.

With the addition of Firekeeper, the Prairie Band Casino & Resort will be the first and only casino, hotel and golf course in the multi-state region. The Potawatomi are banking on the course to stimulate additional economic activity, provide programs for youth and further establish the Prairie Band Casino & Resort as a premier destination resort in the Midwest. The golf course is expected to create 20 to 30 new jobs.

Firekeeper will also be the first Notah Begay III Signature golf course. Begay’s consulting firm, NB3 Consulting, won the bid to design the course over 17 other companies. Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribal Chairman Steve Ortiz said Begay was chosen based on his experience, talent and his commitment to youth.

NB3 will be building the course in conjunction with Landscapes Unlimited, NB3’s development partner. Also on board is award-winning golf course architect, Jeffrey Brauer.

“Jeff and I are a great team,” Begay said. While Brauer handles the technical aspects, Begay brings his insights as a professional player into the strategy, challenge and playability of a course. “Golf is meant to be challenging and fun.”

Begay and Ortiz stressed the care being taken to preserve the integrity of the existing environment. “Keeping with Potawatomi traditions,” Ortiz said, “we are going above and beyond to retain all the land’s natural elements with minimal disruption.”

Ortiz also explained the significance of the Firekeeper name. “All the bands of the Potawatomi carry the title Firekeeper. It represents the fireplace, where we call on our Creator to ask him to help us with all our decision-making, blessings, heal us, care for our land, care for our animals and care for everything. We expect the Firekeeper Golf Course to maintain those standards.”

The course will use all of the original land’s features, such as native grasses and vegetation, rolling hills, natural water features and rock formations. Only about 100,000 to 125,000 cubic yards of dirt are expected to be moved in creating the course. According to Brauer, the median amount of dirt usually moved to build a golf course is close to 250,000 cubic yards; some projects move as much as 1 million cubic yards. Multiple methods of environmental preservation are being utilized such as erosion control, rainwater irrigation and limiting water runoff.

“Our goal is to develop a sustainable and environmentally-friendly property,” said Brauer, who is considered a pioneer in the environmental preservation of modern golf courses.

Begay said Firekeeper is not an investment property and no other surrounding development is planned. “We’re going to try to keep it a lot more traditional.”

Noting the epidemic of diabetes in Indian country, Begay said the course will be designed so players can either ride or walk the course for exercise. “That’s very important.”

A Navajo/Pueblo born and raised in Albuquerque, Begay attended Stanford University on scholarship and earned a degree in economics. At Stanford, Begay was a three-time All-American teammate and roommate of Tiger Woods. In 1994, Begay led the golf team to a national championship.

Off the course, Begay is a national spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and serves as co-chairman of the New Mexico Council on Physical Fitness. In 2005, he founded the Notah Begay III Foundation, which is aimed at getting youth active in soccer and golf programs.

As a youth himself, Begay said he often played from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. He credits his success to a good education and an inner desire to compete. “I’m trying to give these experiences back to the next generation.”

At the 1998 Nike Dominion Open, Begay became the third player in the history of professional golf to shoot a 59 in a professional event. He received an enthusiastic round of laughter and applause when asked if his former roommate, Tiger Woods, has ever beaten his course record. “Not yet,” Begay said.

“The other record he didn’t beat is that I graduated from Stanford, and he didn’t.”

Firekeeper is scheduled to open in the summer of 2010. For more information, visit www.firekeepergolf.com.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at lorrainejessepe@msn.com.