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Notah Begay III blends lessons from his life and the sport

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Renowned pro golfer Notah Begay III integrates his Native roots and values with the business savvy of a man with a degree in economics from Stanford University. The results are an exciting vision of the future for folks in Indian country that incorporate the importance of family and community with the wisdom of strategic planning and economic development that builds for all members of a tribe.

Begay discovered his love for golf when he was barely out of toddlerhood. His father joined a twilight business league when the younger Begay was about 4 years old. The boy and his brother would tag along with their dad, eventually earning the $2 for a bucket of balls by gathering aluminum cans to be recycled.

By the time he was 8, Begay was unable to gather enough cans for recycling to feed his need for golf balls. He went to the course manager and asked for a job. His offer to the manager? No need to pay him – Begay would do whatever needed to be done in exchange for the chance to play for free. The manager told him to show up at 5:30 a.m. Begay said he really took advantage of their arrangement.

Now he’s 33 years old and the only full-blooded American Indian pro golfer in the history of the game. Just a few of his goals:

* Passing the baton to at least one other American Indian pro by the time he retires;

* Teaching upcoming generations of Native youth how to play the game; and

* Providing assistance to numerous tribes who are developing their own golf courses, while supporting their plans for economic development.

Begay, who married wife Apryl less than a year ago, was born and raised in Albuquerque, where they still make their home. His father is full-blooded Navajo (and his paternal grandfather was a code talker); his mother is New Mexican Pueblo – half-San Filipe, half-Isleta.

A college teammate of Tiger Woods and Casey Martin, Begay said, “I have two brothers; my next youngest played golf in college, as well. Golf afforded us a number of opportunities – primarily our education, but also to travel, to see a lot of different places.” (He’s the eldest of the three brothers, and has one older sister and one younger.)

A professional for a decade so far, Begay has been plagued by a back injury for the past few years. He started his consulting company, NB3, earlier in his career than most. He asserted that this is less because of his chronic back pain and more because he wants to help Native tribes build stronger communities. He wants to share his experience, through sound consulting, to help these nations develop courses that can support their existing businesses, such as gaming and/or hospitality.

“I think it was just a natural fit for me to move into,” said Begay. “Initially, there was some interest in different communities for me to design courses. I’ve always felt that if you’re not educated in a particular area, don’t fake it. Golf course architects are very well trained, and that’s not me. But with my economics degree from Stanford, I could take a tribe’s vision and turn it into reality for them. Outside entities would come in and implement what they thought was best for the tribe – but I feel it’s better for me to come in and find out what their goals are in terms of business strategies, then tailor that to the courses they want to build.”

An example of this is the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation – it is set to break ground on its new course this fall, with a grand opening in 2008. NB3 is also starting a feasibility study for the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region. “We’ve begun with an initial assessment of what the market will bear, what the projections will be,” Begay stated. “They may want to start a gaming operation, or their second choice would be as a stand-alone course.”

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Once the feasibility study determines the best course of action, a course architect comes in and designs it. Next, a construction management firm builds it. For this leg of the project, NB3 works closely with Landscapes Unlimited LLC, one of the top golf course development firms in the world. According to Begay, the third and most important step is the grand opening and management of the property.

“That’s where I can shine, since I’m the most accomplished Native American in the history of the game, and the best educated. Some of the elder decision-makers feel I might be too young to provide insight into a tribe’s long-term goals – we often feel we need to prove ourselves to be twice as competent as another group. That’s because most of us at NB3 are around 30 years old.”

“In golf,” Begay pointed out, “the younger you are, the better you play. Sometimes business experience can often outperform youthful energy – but not every time. But with a lot of tribes, the sense is, ‘The more gray hair you have, the better/wiser you are.’ In this arena, having seen and played the best venues in the world gives us an insight into how golf properties should be designed and managed. Bringing this to the table can be far more important than someone who is 10 years older but never played as many places as I have,” Begay said with the conviction of a winner who’s truly been around the world.

The most important thing Begay hopes tribal councils and leadership will understand is that NB3’s key point is when the course opens. This is a time that’s crucial for the communities’ youth. “We offer kids various capabilities, from jobs and learning important values in life to discovering how these life lessons can be found in the game of golf.

My experience is predicated in building communities by calling upon my Native American roots, not just as a golfer. I use my vast experience and knowledge to teach our youth sound values and work ethics. We don’t want to lose our youth to instant gratification [e .g., casinos, video games, etc.]”

Begay offered insight into something most of us have never considered: “Golf is probably the only game that people from four different generations can play at the same place, same time. You can’t do that with basketball, football or baseball.”

“I know golf isn’t a prevalent sport in Indian country. But we can teach the young, the middle-aged, our elders how to enjoy the game, and they can all enjoy it together. In a society where there’s so little family time, it’s wonderful to get outside and go play golf with your parents and/or grandparents.”

Once a golf course has been launched, Begay’s foundation comes in with two initiatives. The first is golf-based, taking place in the summer. This is primarily centered in the Albuquerque area, with so many tribes there. These small community clinics teach golf etiquette. “

Kids may know how to swing a club,” said Begay, “but we also teach protocols like who putts first, not to step into someone’s line, shake your opponent’s hand after a round of golf. This is a sign of respect for competitors, which teaches kids to respect one another. Kids come out of a junior clinic knowing how to play the game of golf across the board.”

The second project started by the Notah Begay III Foundation is a soccer program in San Filipe Pueblo, 30 minutes north of Albuquerque. Begay pointed out that golf has some socioeconomic factors that prevent everyone from playing – from the cost of equipment to transportation and access to a decent course. Once kids go home from a clinic, they can’t always continue to play golf.

Begay wanted something Native youth could do anywhere, even in the streets. “Soccer’s the most universal game in that regard – all you need is a ball and kids. The most important benefit,” said Begay, “is getting kids active in a soccer field, which promotes their health without being an expensive game to play. This will help offset diabetes, a major issue in Indian country.”

Reflecting upon his roots and his future, Begay addressed what matters to him in terms of what he has to offer the world. “Besides playing golf, I hope people will look back and see me as someone who’s built and strengthened our Native American communities, not just by looking back at our history, but also from looking at our current resources to build a future for generations to come.”

Freelance writer Sheri Ziemann is based in the Chicago area. She traces her Cherokee roots to her mother’s family in the mountains of North Carolina.