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'Golf Found Me'

Notah Begay III (center) has made Native American health, specifically obesity and diabetes, a priority for his foundation's work.
Caryn Levy/PGA TOUR

January 18, 2012

Editor’s Note: During the 1999 and 2000 PGA TOUR seasons, Notah Begay III won four TOUR events and represented the U.S. in The Presidents Cup. For most of the first decade of the 21st century, however, Begay has battled back trouble and other injuries. Not able to play a full-time schedule, Begay established his NB3 Foundation, that focuses on reducing the incidents of childhood obesity and type-2 diabetes while promoting leadership development among Native American youth. His foundation hopes to accomplish this through sports, health and research programs.
On Jan. 17, Begay was a featured guest in Indian Wells, Calif., part of a discussion panel at the first annual Health Matters conference hosted by the Clinton Foundation. This one-day event coincided with the PGA TOUR’s Humana Challenge in nearby La Quinta, Calif.
Begay was there to discuss how to build healthy communities. Joining Begay were Susan Dell from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, World Golf Hall of Fame member Annika Sorenstam and founder of the Annika Foundation, Goldie Hawn, Academy Award-winning actress and founder of The Hawn Foundation, and Lakeysha Sowunmi, a wellness community leader from San Diego.

By Notah Begay III, Special to Together, Anything's Possible


I’m a full-blooded Native American, half Navajo, a quarter San Felipe and a quarter Isleta. I’m also the first full-blooded Native American to win a golf tournament on the PGA TOUR. That’s something I’m extremely proud of.

I was born and raised in Albuquerque, N.M. I grew up on a place called Ladera Golf Course. That’s where I dreamed of playing on the PGA TOUR one day. Hitting balls out there as a young kid and telling my colleagues and even some of my instructors that I was going to play the PGA TOUR was something I did even though nobody really ever believed me. I just kept pursuing that goal, and I got a scholarship to Stanford University. I ended up playing there for five years and got a degree in economics. When my college eligibility was completed, I decided to pursue golf professionally.

I always wondered why golf chose me. It wasn’t my favorite sport. I actually wanted to be a basketball player.

I was very fortunate. I used my talent and work ethic on the golf course and translated that into a first-class education. I incurred a tear in one of the disks in my back that left me unable to play. I became inactive, and when I could play, I played extremely poorly. So I went into a state of depression.

The way I tried to counteract that period of my life was by doing a bunch of motivational talks—as many as I could—in Native American communities all around the country. Wherever someone would take me, I would go, and I would work with kids—whether it was fifth-graders or high school graduates at a commencement speech. I did anything I could to stay off the couch and be out of the house.

One of the recurring themes I would see in all the communities I reached out to was a lack of activity among the children. The kids seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, and I didn’t remember kids being that much overweight when I was in school. So I started to make these mental notes, and it started to really trouble me. The physical education programs weren’t adequate, the facilities weren’t adequate and there was a lack of proper nutrition and educational content.

For those not aware, most services on reservations are not where they should be. For instance, less than 10 percent of Native Americans who live on reservations have internet access. In some communities on the Navajo reservation, a large percentage of people don’t have running water. So they’re still living in what would be classified as third-world conditions right in the wealthiest country in the world. So I thought, How can I make a difference? How can I effect change?

And that’s when I realized why I got into golf and why golf chose me. I can be in places like this sitting next to people I consider difference-makers in the world: Annika, Goldie, Lakeysha and Susan are making extraordinary steps in a variety of different areas to impact what I think is a tremendously difficult thing that is facing our kids.

These kids don’t know what they’re up against. They don’t know what’s in front of them, especially if this thing isn’t challenged, if this thing isn’t pushed back.

Many people who attend the events I speak at wonder why I chose diabetes and obesity and why I chose to take on that issue since there are a lot of other pressing ones and a lot of other diseases that face us in this country.

I do it because we can beat it, and that’s what I want to take back with me from this today. We’re all on the same team, regardless of the socio-economic background we come from, whether we’re rich or poor, Stanford or University of New Mexico graduates, it doesn’t matter.

Our kids are the ones we’re trying to look after. It’s the next generation, and I think we can all agree that that is something we want to preserve.

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