VERNON, N.Y. - The assembled professionals certainly demonstrated some skillful golf over the course of the first-ever Turning Stone Resort Championship. Even though some of golf's bigger names skipped Atunyote, many citing a need to rest a week during a critical stretch of season-ending tournaments, the caliber of golf on display at Atunyote indicated a strong depth in the sport's talent base.
Of course, the many fine PGA pros who competed wanted a piece of the $6 million purse. But the efforts of the championship's ambassador, Notah Begay III, Navajo, in luring his colleagues and competitors to Indian country's first big-time PGA event should not be overlooked.
''Notah is very intelligent and articulate,'' said Oneida Indian Nation of New York Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter. ''He's a true gentleman and a professional. We're delighted to have a man of his caliber helping us.''
Begay, 33, has been a member of the PGA Tour for the past eight seasons. A former teammate and roommate of golfing great Tiger Woods at Stanford University, Begay signed a two-year agreement to be Atunyote's ambassador and lobbied his golfing colleagues to give the new tour event a try. He told Indian Country Today (a subsidiary of Four Directions Media, a company owned by the OIN) that the golfers in attendance were happy.
''This is a great venue,'' Begay said. ''Everyone is pleased with the hospitality. This will only get better.''
Unfortunately, Begay did not play as well as he probably would have liked. On Sept. 20, he shot a respectable +1. The following day, however, he again ended over par at +3. The cutoff score for continuing play on the weekend was set at -4.
Nonetheless, Begay waxed positive on the weekend.
''This is a tremendous honor for Native American people,'' he said, praising the OIN for ''stepping up'' to host the tournament. ''It sets a precedent for other tribes.''
Begay, who earned his degree in economics at Stanford, said that a successful PGA event at Turning Stone will encourage gaming tribes to move out of ''non-mainstream'' sporting events, like poker and boxing, and into golf.
While a number of gaming tribes have developed a golfing presence, none is as yet on par with OIN. Two tribes, the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut and the Yakama Indian Nation of Washington state, currently own professional basketball teams.
Begay's assumption of the ambassadorial role comes as no surprise. As one of Indian country's most prominent professional athletes, he has frequently offered to give something back.
The Notah Begay III Foundation, established in 2005, seeks in part to help kids by offering them constructive athletic opportunities. Begay seeks to emphasize American Indian youth programs designed by Natives rather than by outsiders, whose efforts are generally less sustainable because they are outside of and apart from the community. Dozens of Native youth in the Albuquerque, N.M., area participate in golf and soccer programs sponsored by the foundation.
Begay also works to fight diabetes, a serious health concern throughout Indian country. Through athletics, he encourages kids to stay active and healthy.
''I try to make kids aware that diabetes is killing our people,'' he said. ''But it's preventable.''