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PGA’s Begay Visits New Mexico Home

November 12, 1999

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ PGA rookie sensation and American Indian sports icon Notah Begay came home Friday.

Under an Indian-summer blue sky with the temperature in the high 70s, Begay munched on Indian fry bread, captivated hundreds of children with his golf swing and helped raised thousands of dollars to get drivers and putters into the hands of Indian youngsters.

Begay, winner of two tournaments and more than $1.2 million on the PGA Tour this season, returned to Albuquerque’s Ladera municipal course on which he started playing golf at age 8. He held a golf clinic, signed hundreds of golf balls and hats and spoke of how golf can help keep America’s youth from drugs, alcohol and gangs.

``I want to give kids an alternative ... to participation in gangs (and) to just sitting around and wasting their time with their friends,″ Begay said. ``If there’s something out there for them to put their time into, and if there’s a goal beyond that, then it gives them an opportunity.″

For youngsters living on the Canoncito Navajo reservation 30 miles west of Albuquerque, that opportunity will be enhanced by a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Golf Association. Officials of the USGA presented a check in that amount to Canoncito community leaders to help start a junior golf program.

American Indian youth from several other New Mexico pueblos and tribes, along with two junior golfers from the Oneida tribe in Wisconsin, got the day off from school to attend the event.

``We don’t care what skill level they’re at, we just want to get them involved,″ said Begay, a half-Navajo, half-Pueblo Indian.

Begay, a graduate of Stanford, where he was a teammate of Tiger Woods, won the Reno-Tahoe Open and the Michelob Championship in his first season on the PGA Tour. His emergence on the tour has made him New Mexico’s biggest golf celebrity since Nancy Lopez and an idol to American Indian youth, for whom golf has traditionally been a foreign sport.

``I’m really glad that he paved the path for us,″ said 16-year-old Laurel Begay (no relation), a student at Ganado High School in northeastern Arizona. ``Especially Navajos, because when a Native American succeeds, it’s usually from other tribes. We look up to him, and he’s a really good, positive role model.″

Asked if she believes golf will become popular among American Indian youngsters, Laurel Begay responded, laughing: ``Yeah, because of Notah Begay. He’s really cool.″

The event, which also featured a golf tournament to raise money for junior golf programs in New Mexico, attracted an estimated 1,000 people.

Surrounded by youngsters and admiring adults, Begay put on an impressive clinic, displaying every shot in his bag _ from a high fade to a low hook, from 280-yard drives to 100-yard wedge shots.

And he did it with a frequent touch of humor.

``When I’m playing with amateurs, I like to stand right behind the flag or right in the middle of the fairway,″ Begay told his audience. ``It’s the safest place.″

The day brought tears to the eyes of Begay’s father, Notah Begay Sr., and a sense of pride to his Stanford coach, Wally Goodwin.

``This is wonderful,″ said Goodwin, who flew in from California for the event. ``It’s going to change the life of maybe one kid here. And if you change the life of one kid in your lifespan, you’ve done your job. Notah is going to change the lives of lots of kids.″

Begay’s father said he never imagined the impact his son has had on American Indians _ ``not with Indians; with non-Indians, maybe. He has done something beyond what I could imagine.″

``Look at that,″ he said, pointing to a long line of autograph seekers waiting to meet his son.

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