WASHINGTON - At a recent conference on juvenile justice, golfer Notah Begay spoke about his long journey to success in the world of professional sports as a Navajo and one of the few American Indians to ever play on the Professional Golf Association tour.
He also spoke passionately and emotionally about his recent arrest for drunken driving and the many lessons he has learned from that setback.
Just this year, after an amazing rookie year in which he won two PGA tournaments and earned more than $1 million, as well as a nomination for Rookie of the Year, Begay was arrested for drunken driving in Albuquerque, N.M.
"That was probably the one thing I learned the most from in my life," Begay said. "At that point I had that sense of invincibility. Going through that process I was able to experience and learn a lot of things."
Just like his many performances on the golf course, Begay is showing outstanding qualities in handling his recent troubles outside golf. Refusing the advice of many lawyers, Begay pleaded guilty to aggravated drunken driving and voluntarily informed the court of a prior arrest for driving while under the influence of alcohol - adding five days to the mandatory two-day jail sentence.
After his admission, Begay served his seven days in jail, was fined, ordered to perform community service, lost his license, and was prohibited from drinking alcohol for one year.
"I came to the decision that I was going to step up and take my medicine," Begay said. "It is easy to have success, but when you see real character is when you are tested with adversity. I'm the one who made the decision to drive that night and now what can I do to right this wrong."
Begay said he has pushed himself since then to come to grips with his mistake and was deeply affected by what he had done to himself, his family, his career, and those younger people who look up to him.
"I was so ashamed of the damage I had done to young people," Begay said. "It had such a dramatic impact on me because throughout my life I have always tried to set a good example. I ... totally went against that and that really bothered me because I had worked way too hard to have something like that tear down everything I had accomplished, but there was a reason. I knew that even in this difficult time I could still set an example."
Accepting responsibility for his actions and searching for ways to improve himself while teaching others has been Begay's goal this year, immersing himself in helping youth in his community, speaking to youth across the country and looking inward for renewed strength.
"I learn more from my failures, shortcomings, and mistakes than anything I can learn in the game of golf," Begay said. "I can now go out and talk to kids. I tell them that everyone can make mistakes, but you must learn from them and improve yourself."
Making a difference is nothing new to Begay, on and off the golf course. He has worked closely with the U.S. Golf Association and the Native American Sports Council to set up junior golf programs for tribal youth. He also testified before a Senate subcommittee on the state of American Indian youth and factors he believes contributed to his success.
"It goes beyond trophies," Begay said. "The legacy that I want to leave is that I made a difference in the lives of kids."