One summer, when he was nine, Notah Begay III hopped a fence surrounding Albuquerque’s Ladera Golf Course and waited for the head pro to wander into a parking lot. The kid intercepted Don Zamora as he walked to his car. “I introduced myself,” Begay recalls, “and asked for a job. I didn’t want to be paid,I just wanted to hit golf balls and play for free.”
Zamora soon had the neighborhood youth cleaning restrooms, gathering trash, and sweeping patios. After he’d done these chores, Begay practiced his game until dinnertime. Within a few years he knew he was skilled enough to compete for a scholarship for college, something his family couldn’t otherwise afford. After a distinguished academic and athletic career at Albuquerque Academy, Begay went on to earn an economics degree in 1995 from Stanford University, where his roommate was Tiger Woods, still a good friend.
“The biggest achievement of my life has been that Stanford degree,” says Begay, today a busy 39-year-old businessman and philanthropist who parlayed his grade-school passion into becoming the only full-blooded Native American on the Professional Golfers’ Association tour. The winner of four PGA tournaments, he is one of only a handful of players to shoot a 59 in a tour event. Begay expects to remain on the PGA Tour for at least six more years.
Compact and muscular, Begay is an intense and focused golfer. His boyish victory grin is framed by a full head of close-cropped black hair, dark-chocolate eyes, and hoop earrings. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, although the family plans to move back to the Land of Enchantment some day.
“I love New Mexico—the food, ambiance, scenery, and culture—and would not have chosen to grow up anywhere else,” says Begay, who is of Navajo and Pueblo (San Felipe–Isleta) descent. Proud of his heritage, he participates regularly in feast-day dances, and in 2011 served as Grand Marshal for the Navajo Nation Fair Parade. Begay also claims strong ties to the Apache of southern New Mexico.
“Since the age of eight,” he notes, “I’ve been going to Mescalero lands near Ruidoso for tournaments and to spend time with friends. I appreciate the mountains and lakes and incredible natural beauty there. It’s always been a sacred place for me.
“The Inn of the Mountain Gods golf course there is among my favorites,” Begay says. “I find that playing there always helps me find and maintain my center. It has a traditional yet extremely creative design, with lots of variety and elevation changes, going in and out of wooded areas, alongside creeks and rocky hillsides, as well as Lake Mescalero. You hit a lot of different types of shots here, which has helped me to develop a skill set that serves me well. I also appreciate that there are no houses sitting beside the course, and it is not commercialized the way so many others are today.”
Begay developed close ties with Mescalero president Wendell Chino, who died in 1998. “Wendell had the original idea of creating the very first Native-owned golf course,” he says. “He was a visionary, way ahead of everyone else in building a resort to provide a revenue stream for his people.”
Inspired in part by Chino, Begay oversees his own nonprofit organization as well as a food company and NB3 Consulting, which develops golf courses exclusively for Native communities. “My foundation,” he says, “provides health, leadership, and wellness education to Native American youth—through golf and soccer—as a means to combat the epidemic of Type II diabetes and obesity.” His KivaSun Foods, meanwhile, markets high-quality seafood and meat to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and other retailers. A portion of sales supports the NB3 Foundation.
Begay’s life has not been without setbacks. He suffered a herniated spinal disc soon after representing the U.S. as a member of the 2000 President’s Cup Team. Arduous rehabilitation followed, along with bouts of depression and an arrest for DUI. Unable to remain at the top of his game, the sidelined golfer became immersed in community service, corporate ventures, and family life. “It took me seven years to become pain-free,” says Begay, who has since returned to PGA competition.
The reinforced connection with his culture has ensured its key role in Begay’s activities, including participation in fundraising tournaments supporting optimistic aspirations of Native youth. It seems appropriate that Begay’s first name, Notah, derives from the Navajo term for “almost there” and that his private name on his Pueblo side means “Morning Star.”
And about that first golf course he talked his way onto in 1981? “I groomed my game at Ladera,” Begay allows, “and still play it today.”
Check it Out
Notah Begay’s favorite New Mexico courses include:
Inn of the Mountain Gods
287 Carrizo Canyon Road, Mescalero; (800) 545-9011
Ladera Golf Course
3401 Ladera Drive NW, Albuquerque; (505) 836-4449
Pueblo de Cochiti Golf Course
5200 Cochiti Highway, Lake Cochiti; (505) 465-2239
1300 Tuyuna Trail, Santa Ana Pueblo; (505) 867-1234