Time in jail made a golfer of Notah

 

Historically speaking, the phrase "Military Intelligence" has often proven to be a contradiction in terms, but occasionally somebody comes up with an idea that actually works. One such brainstorm came during the second World War when, frustrated by the fact that German and Japanese operatives were able to regularly crack their most sophisticated codes, US intelligence hit upon the idea of recruiting 375 Navajo Indians and entrusting them with their most sensitive radio communications. Speaking in their tribal language, the "code talkers" eluded all subsequent attempts by the Axis to interpret their conversations.

One of these Native Americans was a US marine named Notah Begay, although historians are more apt to refer to him as Notah Begay I, particularly since his grandson and namesake, Notah III, has become the hottest golfer on the planet this side of Tiger Woods.

Begay won two tournaments as a rookie on the US tour in 1999, and when he drained a 22-foot birdie putt to beat Mark Calcavecchia on the final hole of the Greater Hartford Open, it gave him his second win this year in as many weeks. In the space of eight days Begay pocketed over $1 million in purses. The feat also qualified him for the British Open at St Andrews two weeks hence, and if the American Ryder Cup team were to be selected today, Notah Begay III would be on it.

In what is becoming known as the Year of the Minority on the PGA tour, Begay is often described as "Tiger Woods' college team-mate"; but Begay was actually the number one player on the Stanford team that won the 1994 NCAA championship. For a time he roomed with Woods at Stanford in a carefree student era which, when the two recall it now, sounds like something straight out of Animal House. Begay is half Navajo, half Pueblo, and the first full-blooded Native American to compete on the tour. He is also golf's only known switchputter. Begay, who uses a two-sided blade, strikes his right-to-left breaking putts righthanded, and putts left-handed when his line reads in the opposite direction. Begay (27), grew up on the Isleta Indian Reservation outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, and honed his game at a scruffy public course called Ladera. While the pre-pubescent Indian lad lacked the wherewithal to play regularly, he talked the resident professional into letting him help out around the course in exchange for free range balls. The eventual pay-off was that 12 years later Begay would graduate from Stanford with a Bachelor's degree in economics.

In 1995, he and Woods became the first minority players to be selected for the US Walker Cup team, but whereas Tiger was worth $40 million the day he turned pro and jumped straight onto the Tour, Begay had to earn his place in the more traditional manner. He played the mini-tours for two seasons, carding a 59 in a competitive round on the Nike (now Buy.Com) Tour two years ago, and finished 1998 with a PGA Tour exemption for last season.

He played in the World Matchplay at Wentworth last year, defeating the reigning Masters champion, Jose-Maria Olazabal, before losing to eventual winner Colin Montgomerie. "To be honest, I'm not in the same class as these people here this week," Begay said at the time. "If you were to look at all the players' golfing resumes, mine would be the shortest."

Not exactly. Begay's name means "Almost There" in the Navajo tongue, but he may be there already. His four wins in the past 10 months are second only to Woods' nine.

"Tiger," said Begay of his old friend and one-time drinking buddy, "has been a great asset as my career progresses, because he's probably one of the . . . most recognisable people in the world. I'm just hoping to be the most recognisable guy in Albuquerque."

Begay plans to be in London as a spectator at Wimbledon this weekend before heading to St Andrews. And while he may be adept at putting from both sides, no one need be concerned about seeing him barrelling down the left side of the road at the wheel next week. Notah Begay III no longer has a driving licence.

Oddly, for all his exploits on golf courses over the past year, it was Begay's stand-up performance in an Albuquerque courtroom and the week he subsequently served in the sneezer which have drawn more admiration.

Last November, a month after he lost to Montgomerie at Wentworth, Begay, who sees himself as a role model for Indian children, gave a speech to tribal youngsters in which he warned against the dangers of drinking and driving.

"I don't claim to be an activist," Begay explained at the time. "But I'm an advocate. I try to promote positive images and break down stereotypes - and anyone who has had any direct contact with reservation life knows that alcoholism is a serious issue."

Two months later, on the night of January 19th, he emerged from an Albuquerque saloon, got behind the wheel of his car, and lurched into an expensive Jaguar in a car-park fender-bender. The police were duly summoned, and Begay registered a blood/alcohol content of 0.21 - twice the legal limit.

Several years earlier he had acquired another drink-driving conviction, this one in Arizona. There is no earthly way the prior arrest would have come to the attention of the court had Begay himself not volunteered the information. The presiding judge praised Begay for his candour, but under New Mexico sentencing guidelines for a second drink-driving offence in a five-year span had no alternative but to lock him up. While his fellow pros were playing the Florida circuit this March, Begay was spending a week behind bars in the Albuquerque jail.

While fearful that he had only enhanced the stereotypical image of the "drunken Indian", Begay emerged with a new-found admiration from his fellow pros. This time he had not only talked the talk, he had walked the walk. And he hasn't had a drink since the accident.

"It's been an uphill battle," he said last week after his Hartford win. "Getting arrested and spending time in jail was the lowest of the low, and I'm not ever going to take anything for granted anymore. I guess I'm just happy to be playing, and that's maybe reflective in the way I'm playing. I'm playing with a lot of spirit, and that's when I play my best."