VERONA, N.Y. – Four-time PGA Tour winner Notah Begay III was pumped to host the Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge, his first golf tournament, at the Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Resort and Casino in central New York Aug. 26. (The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian County Today.) In the days leading up to his “NB3 Challenge,” the Navajo/Pueblo golf wiz sat down with ICT for an interview.
Indian Country Today: Your foundation is playing a big role in making this tournament happen – how did you go about developing the idea?
Notah Begay III: I think one of the simplest but best concepts I learned in my Stanford economics classes was to try to create win-win situations. In this particular case, I think we’re doing that. Our two founding sponsors for the tournament, the OIN and the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, have built very successful businesses through their gaming operations. As a testament to their interest, they’ve taken a position of support for my foundation.
What I didn’t want to do was be like every other 501(c)(3) and just ask for donations. With the contacts I have in the golf and corporate worlds, I felt like I could do a better job of creating value for them. ... And now we can bring tremendous exposure to particular needs that need to be addressed in Indian communities. That’s what this is all about. At the end of the day, it’s our younger generations who are going to benefit.
ICT: Why is serving and helping Indian youth a priority for you?
Begay: Our kids deserve every opportunity to make something of themselves and contribute back to their communities. The goal is to make young Indians healthier and stronger, but we really want to create sustainable Native programs that are designed by Native Americans. ... We use sports as our introduction to the community. Sports are very acceptable for young people to get involved in.
ICT:: Explain how youth sports programs can help a community’s success on a greater level.
Begay: Go to any gaming facility in Indian country, and I promise you that there are less than 10 percent that are run with upper management composed of tribal members. We see too many of our tribal managers as waitresses, as dealers, as pit bosses – but as far as being in upper management, there’s very few instances where tribes have taken it upon themselves to see that their own people are trained so that their facilities can be internally run. ...
If you create opportunities for younger members, I feel that they’re more likely to go through the ranks, get an education and become strong tribal leaders.
ICT: That’s not going to happen overnight –
Begay: Right. Step one is really to introduce sports programming. Step two is to introduce better facilities for these kids. Step three is community centers … with educational-based teaching, based partly on what the kids want. In every stage of this growth process, we’re directly addressing the health concerns that face our people on a daily bases.
ICT: What do you think about athletes who say it’s not their job to be a role model for kids?
Begay: I agree with them. Being a mentor and a role model is a choice. That’s the exact same thing that I want to impart to our kids – we’re not trying to make the decisions for them, as far as the direction of their lives.
We can’t save all of the kids, and we’re not trying to. What we want to do is equip them with the skills and the experiences to make decisions that will positively impact their lives and their communities. It’s not an athlete’s responsibility to be a role model, it’s an opportunity.
ICT: Your drunk driving arrest in 2000 received plenty of press. Do you think you faced increased scrutiny because of the stigma surrounding Natives and alcohol?
Begay: The DUI had a big impact on how the public perceived me, both within the Native community and within the mainstream. It was a difficult thing to process. But I feel like I responded positively by not trying to weasel my way out of anything. That’s a key thing that I try to instill to kids: You make a mistake, you take accountability, regardless of the consequences.
When that happened, I stood up, I took my punishment, and I moved on. I haven’t had any real trouble since. ... It’s important to know that nobody has a perfect life, or makes perfect decisions. But we can move forward and make better decisions in the future.
ICT: Do you think it’s important not to gloss over one’s own difficulties when trying to empower youth?
Begay: The biggest thing, as far as I’m concerned: Don’t lie to the kids. Don’t paint a storybook picture, or unrealistic expectations. Kids are very smart and are very perceptive. They know when they’re being lied to, regardless of whether they let you know or not.
ICT: Do you face stereotypes that people might think about you just because you happen to be Native?
Begay: Oh, yes, certainly. One of the things that was hard for me to endure for a long time was the fact that some tribal members felt like I wasn’t doing enough for Native American people. That was hard for me to come to terms with because the Native American people have always been a source of strength for me. ... But I’ve learned that you can’t please everyone 100 percent of the time.
ICT: Some people have described your golf style as “flamboyant.” Do you think that’s a good descriptor?
Begay: Yeah, sort of flamboyant, bordering on reckless. [Laughs]
ICT:Do you ever hear the notion that golf is an elite sport that maybe isn’t a great fit for some Native kids?
Begay: The major obstacle to getting more Native Americans to play golf is access to facilities. As more tribes start building and owning their own facilities, we are eliminating one of the obstacles. Plus, golf is a hard and time-consuming game. The ones who truly appreciate the spirit of the game and the challenges it presents fall in love with it. ...
ICT: What helped you fall in love with the sport?
Begay: I was good at it. From a very early age, I could win. I really had a talent for whatever it is that requires a person to excel.
ICT: Who put the first golf club in your hand?
Begay: My father did when I was 6. I think he was just trying to get me to be quiet.