All kinds of platitudes are applicable here, like, “Lead, don’t follow” or “To thine own self be true.”
Notah Begay III, perhaps the most ubiquitous Native American in contemporary society, subscribes to many of them—“The whole thing comes full circle,” says the good-looking man who tells a rags-to-riches story about becoming the first Native American on the Professional Golf Association Tour.
Now an NBC golf analyst, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Begay grew up with the sport after being introduced to the game by his father. How he got from a scrawny kid youngster in Albuquerque to a resounding success on several fronts should provide initiative to other young Natives chasing a dream.
“At the age of 6, I started collecting and recycling aluminum cans to raise enough money to buy a bucket of balls. By age 9, still a skinny little Indian kid, I introduced myself to the club pro and told him I’d work for nothing if I could practice on off-hours. From then until I went to college, I’d show up at 5:30 every morning and put in a couple of hours performing meaningless tasks like emptying trash, sweeping floors and parking golf carts. Then I’d get to practice from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m. every day—at no charge. I thought it was the greatest job in the world, because I got to hit as many golf balls as I wanted.”
By age 17, he was the No. 1 junior golfer in the country (with friend and later Stanford college roommate Tiger Woods at second). “There weren’t a lot of brown guys out there at the time, just me and Tiger,” he says.
Graduating with a degree in economics, Begay went on to immediate professional success, winning four tournaments before he got injured. Then depression set in with a stint in jail for drunken driving. “Sometimes fate presents opportunities," Begay said. "I landed on my feet and made the appropriate changes in my life to become better.”
Today the 41-year-old star gets to talk about the sport he loves as a commentator as well as designing new golf courses—like the Pascua Yaqui tribe’s 18-hole course set to open next month in Tucson.
Begay’s fame and fortune allowed him to expand his horizons through entrepreneurship (KivaSun Foods) and philanthropy (The Notal Begay III Foundation, a.k.a. NB3F), both directly connected with Native health.
In 2010, he and a partner invested in a company selling bison meat, “a challenging project,” he says, and one that again called on him to persevere.
“I thought because I was Notah Begay that I could do anything, and I found out quickly that’s not the case. In the extremely competitive food industry, nobody cares how far you can drive a golf ball, they just care if the product tastes good and is priced right.
"There were some dark days with the company nearly at the point of being down to our last dollar. We hung in there, solved problems and formed industry partnerships [sourcing bison from the 57-tribe InterTribal Buffalo Council]. Today we’re looking to surpass $5 million in sales and should approach $10 million in sales in the next two years.”
Which brings us to the concept of cultural full-circle. “All the stuff in the for-profit world transferred into our non-profit work with the NB3 Foundation,” he says. A percentage of KivaSun sales gets donated to NB3 to support Native American health efforts through sports and education. “This is a lifelong commitment for me," Begay says. "I’ll be doing it for decades to come, because that’s how long it will take to provide services to our Indian communities to address childhood obesity and the diabetes epidemic.
“If we don’t start making changes in our lifestyle choices, our people’s lifespans will continue to get shorter. Native American lifespans are the shortest of any U.S. minority group, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Asked to offer up something the general public doesn’t already know about him, Begay says he tries to set an example for others by being a good role model. “Marriage and fatherhood are not static commitments, and I work diligently to be a better husband and father. Home and family is the starting point of my day—it’s where I get my strength. And if I can’t set a good example within my own home, how can I help anybody else’s child?”
The man-who-made-it offers a message to Indian children trying for their own successes: “Don’t limit your dreams. Educate yourself, take care of yourself, push yourself to fulfill your goals.”