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Begay can grin about Day 1 fall

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


St. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Notah Begay III was leading by two strokes in the British Open. Suddenly, at a historic St. Andrews trauma center, he became road kill.

On the infamous 17th, Begay went rough/rough/water/splashout/triple bogey. Thursday's ultimate victim of the Road Hole. An hour later, he was smiling like a champion.

"I keep finding myself in a learning process," said the 27-year-old American Indian and former Stanford teammate of Tiger Woods. "This was just another Notah adventure in a remarkable year of highs and lows."

At the end of February, Begay entered an Albuquerque, N.M., jail. DUI. He was locked up for a week, though released several hours daily for golf practice. "I was beyond ashamed," he said. "It sickened me to embarrass my family, and all Indians.

"I had contributed, for a second time, to a disgusting stereotype about alcohol's effect on my people. I take pride in being a role model for Native Americans. To say it was sobering is a huge understatement."

His honesty was heroic. A day after his Jan. 19 arrest, he admitted it was his second DWI. He was convicted of driving while intoxicated in Scottsdale, Ariz., in November 1995. Having a previous offense increased his jail term. "I deserved it," he said.

From his February-March downer, Begay rebounded. He stroked to back-to-back PGA Tour wins at Memphis and Hartford. Two weeks, a million dollars. Now it is St. Andrews, where Notah's artistry was in full bloom Thursday, heading for his first under-par round in a major championship. Begay's name went from a New Mexico rap sheet to the top of the British Open leaderboard. "My stomach didn't quiver a bit," he said of the opening 16 holes. "I'm pretty good at math and could figure we had three more rounds ahead."

A trap door cometh.

Notah reached the nasty 17th, a funky 455-yard terror that demands a blind tee shot across old railroad sheds and a stone wall that surrounds the Old Course Hotel.

Eventually on the par 4, there's a deep sand pit called Road Bunker guarding a wide but precariously shallow green. Behind all that is a single asphalt lane, the road itself, which is in play.

"I was joy riding along," Begay said, "but my drive at 17 was pulled into the only severe rough on the Old Course." Notah played smart, trying to wedge back to the fairway, treating the Road Hole as a par 5.

Didn't work.

"My club face was grabbed by heavy grass, so my second shot went a few yards farther into the mess," he said. Troubles had only begun. From there, Notah snapped his third shot farther left than even ancient Scots had seen in a British Open, plunking into a burn (creek) near the No. 1 green, the ball maybe one-third submerged in muck.

"I began thinking about Jean Van de Velde in last year's Open at Carnoustie," Begay said, "hitting it all over Scotland and finally diving into water, blowing the tournament at the final hole. Even so, I wasn't about to back off."

Begay climbed into the burn with shoes and socks on and pants tucked into his socks. "That's a lot more entertaining than taking a boring drop," he said. "I love going into water, getting my feet wet, trying something different."

His extraction was efficient, bounding six paces shy of the green, but Begay still needed a putt, then two more. Seven! Notah's name did an avalanche tumble from its British Open high.

"What happened on 17 didn't steam me," he said. "Mostly, it was lousy luck with that ghastly lie for my second shot. Such stuff happens to somebody every day. It was just my turn to suffer.

"Nah, it was the 18th that was really, really stupid. I underhit my approach, backspinning it into the Valley of Sin, making a bogey on a hole that should be easy. But my score was 69, so that's worth a grin."

Begay is a bright, talented, affable bloke. "I'm pretty new to St. Andrews," he said. "This course can look defenseless at times, but it's mandatory to think your way around, cutting loose when called for but also guiding some shots away from places that can be really harmful.

"My time to dive was the 17th. I'm not the first to get hurt there, won't be the last. It's just another learning experience. I expect to be smarter Friday, then even better Saturday and Sunday."

Begay's brother, Clint, this year became his regular caddie. Notah's kin was on the bag for the recent PGA Tour successes, but for St. Andrews, the sibling was temporarily replaced by an aide with link course experience.

"It's been such fun having Clint at my side and playing really well," Notah said. "I'm delighted at turning a year with such a sour beginning into something of which I hope all Native Americans will be proud."

Notah has four wins since elevating from the Nike Tour in 1999. He was a Stanford University senior when Woods appeared as Palo Alto's hottest golf recruit. "I would give everybody nicknames," Begay said. "If they didn't like theirs, that was better yet. Tiger didn't much like his."

Woods was labeled "Steve Urkel," after a brainy, high-pockets nerd played by Jaleel White on the TV sitcom Family Matters. "Notah became a great friend," Woods said, "a solid senior I could lean on."

Steve Urkel?

"Did he name me that?"

Tiger grinned, then fled.

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