Originally created 06/20/02

Begay finds comeback from back injury a long struggle



DURANGO, Colo. -- While an old college teammate was winning the U.S. Open, Notah Begay III was a last-minute entry in a low-profile local tournament and still looking for his first paycheck on the PGA Tour this year.

The winner of four tournaments and more than $3 million on the tour before a back injury, Begay says the past 18 months have been the toughest in his life.

"The climb back has been much harder than I anticipated," said Begay, who this week is playing in the Greater Hartford Open, a tournament he won two years ago.

Begay, 29, sat out most of the 2001 season with an aggravated disc in his lower back and has played in only 11 tournaments this year - missing the cut in all of them. He hasn't earned a penny this season on the tour.

"That's the hardest thing to cope with sometimes, that I was there and now it seems so far away," Begay said.

Last week - when ex-Stanford teammate Tiger Woods and most of the other big names in the game were at the U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park on Long Island - Begay was at the Navajo Trails Open, an obscure event held annually on a public course to benefit Durango's junior golf program.

It was an opportunity, said Begay, to "grow the game a little and create a buzz" for the locals.

"I've never held myself in such high esteem that I can't ever play in events like this," he said. "I'd never played up here and a lot of my supporters live in the area."

Begay shot 5-under-par in the 54-hole tournament with rounds of 69, 71 and 68, and earned about $1,400. He finished fourth in the field of 41 pros and said it was the first time in over a year he had broken par.

The Hillcrest course located next to Fort Lewis College is no Bethpage Black, but that mattered little to Begay.

"I don't care where it happens," Begay said of his two subpar rounds. "The mind doesn't distinguish between Paris, New York or Albuquerque. All it knows is when it succeeds. This was a huge victory."

Begay grew up playing on the Ladera municipal course in Albuquerque. He cleaned out carts and did a variety of odd jobs at the course to earn money for the hundreds of range balls he'd hit.

A standout high school athlete in basketball, soccer and golf, Begay went on to Stanford, where he was the No. 1 player on the Cardinal's national championship team in 1994.

He and Woods were the first minorities selected for the Walker Cup in 1995, and Begay is the only American Indian on the PGA Tour.

The back injury is the latest hurdle for Begay, who says his rise from the reservation to the pro golf tour has been "like a storybook."

At the start of the 2000 season, Begay was arrested for drunken driving. When he went to court, he volunteered to the judge that it was his second offense for driving under the influence - the previous one having occurred five years earlier in Arizona. Begay served a seven-day jail sentence, then went back to work and won twice on the tour that summer.

In a small state like New Mexico, there are few homegrown sports icons. Begay, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez are among those on that short list. It's an elite group that Begay is proud to be a part of.

"People don't come from humble beginnings, go on to get a great education and be able to affect a whole (Navajo) nation of people," he said. "To have an influence on how they view themselves and how they perceive themselves in the context of mainstream America."

Begay has always oozed confidence. But he said the back injury at times has left him doubting his ability to again be successful on the tour.

"Now, I'm faced with completely new circumstances and not knowing where to set my goals," Begay said. "I didn't have any idea where I was, so I couldn't figure out where I wanted to go. I just knew I wanted to get better."

One of Begay's other passions is talking to young people - especially American Indians - about the hazards of alcohol. He says that part of his life won't change, even if his game doesn't return to form.

"Will I still have a hell of a life? Will I still be able to affect change in the lives of these kids? Yes," he said. "Will the people still recognize me? Maybe not. But I didn't care about that anyway. Everything that matters in my life is still going to be constant."