Carefree Begay brings different face to the game

Ken Jonesat St Andrews

One of the things that sets Notah Begay apart from the majority of tournament golfers is a sunny disposition. Another is what appears to be an uncomplicated appreciation of the good things that have happened to him.

One of the things that sets Notah Begay apart from the majority of tournament golfers is a sunny disposition. Another is what appears to be an uncomplicated appreciation of the good things that have happened to him.

Where others complain about the rough, pin placings, the weather, starting times, barely audible movements in the crowd, anything to excuse errors in shot-making, Begay at 27 years-old is consistently philosophical. "I was out there having fun," he said yesterday.

This, after dropping four shots over the last two holes at St Andrews, tumbling down the Open leaderboard from seven to three under. "Hey, for me this is a first," Begay added, "my first under par round in a major championship."

Standing on the 17th tee, Begay had a bigger first in his mind. "No mistakes from here and I could go off tomorrow as tournament leader," he thought. Maybe it would even mean being paired with Tiger Woods, his friend since they were together at Stanford University.

In trying to avoid a bunker, Begay, who had not been driving well, went left into knee-high rough. One thing led to another: more rough, then the dreaded burn. When Begay got to his ball it was laying in mud. Where others would have cursed, Begay just smiled. He'd been enjoying himself, so why spoil things. To use his words, why take a boring drop when he could entertain the audience?

Seeing Begay prepare to step into the burn, the gallery sent up a hearty round of applause. "I thought it was fun to go in there and get my feet wet and pitch out. I mean, you don't often get the chance to do that. I knew I could get the ball out and it's something I'll always remember."

Recently, Begay played with Jean Van de Velde and afterwards they fell into conversation about the Frenchman's famous adventures at the 72nd hole in last year's Open at Carnoustie. Apparently, Van de Velde's only regret, despite losing the Championship in a play-off, is that he didn't hit out of the burn. "That's what he said and I didn't want to regret not taking a chance, even if it meant an eight or a nine," Begay said. A cheer went up when Begay's ball came out and another when he made seven.

Doubtless, there are plenty of people who will argue that this isn't the way to succeed in major championships but, God bless him, Begay is refreshingly different.

That was evident throughout the round he played yesterday with Lee Westwood and Jeff Maggert, who soon found themselves hanging on to Begay's coat-tails. While Westwood wrestled, manfully it has to be said, with a course for which he has no great affection, Begay moved merrily onwards, the sun glinting on his gold ear-rings.

Begay has a pre-shot routine that high handicappers instantly recognise. It's as though the drills of a lesson are running through his mind. Grip, stance, bend forward from the hips, flex the knees, thing you're sitting on a high stool. Head still, one piece take-away. Stay behind the ball.

Begay's swing is not a thing of beauty but along with ambidextrous putting it has brought him four victories in less than a year on the US Tour, including back-to-back successes in the last month. He came to the Open from a fourth place finish last week at Loch Lomond.

Then there is his background. Half Navajo, a quarter Isleta and a quarter San Felipe, he was raised on a reservation in New Mexico.

One of Begay's big aims in life is to let his golf speak for all Native Americans. "There are more than 500 nations and I want to represent them all in the most positive fashion possible," he has said.

That wasn't quite the word on Begay when he was jailed for seven days after being convicted of drink driving. It was the longest week of his life, a salutary experience. "I thought about how lucky I was to be playing golf for a living, but I'd never realised how much it meant to me."

No wonder then that Begay could still smile. After the Old Course had come right back at him. Not only the three dropped shots at 17 but a bogey at the last, caused when his second shot found the Valley of Sin. Others might have cursed their luck. Begay simply blamed himself. "It was stupid," he said, "Just stupid." Earlier, at the eighth, he collected his fourth consecutive birdie to go five under. Better still, he eagled the par-four 12th with a 25-yard sand wedge. Another birdie at the 14th saw him leading the Open at seven under. "I had a beautiful round going," he said. "But I always seem to be putting myself through some sort of learning process. Things could have worked out better but you can't win on the first day."

It was something else Begay said that made you think plenty of tournament golfers could take a lesson from him. "What happened to me happens to someone every day. It was my turn."

With philosophy like that Begay could give professional golf a bad name.