Notah Begay III turned 50 on Wednesday and is preparing to embark on a second career moonlighting as a golfer on PGA Tour Champions – he’s signed up for Furyk & Friends next month in Jacksonville.
Begay won four times on the PGA Tour in a 10-month stretch in 1999 and 2000 before a back injury short-circuited his career. He made a successful transition as a TV commentator for NBC Sports and Golf Channel and has been walking the fairways with the likes of his former Stanford teammate Tiger Woods for the last decade.
Begay, who is scheduled to serve as captain of the U.S. Junior Presidents Cup this weekend in Charlotte, also has carved a niche in junior golf, creating the Notah Begay III Junior Golf Championship.
Begay was part of Stanford men’s golf national championship team in 1994, shot a 59 on the Korn Ferry Tour in 1998 and earned more than $5 million during his playing career.
He discusses the great mulligan that is the PGA Tour Champions and his eagerness to compete again, the time Tiger gave him a bad layup number and just how good Charlie Woods is – and could be – at golf.
GWK: Happy 50th! What's the current state of your physical health and your ability to play on PGA Tour Champions?
Notah Begay III hits his tee shot on the 16th hole during the second round of the 2005 Funai Classic at Walt Disney World Resort. Photo by USA TODAY Sports (©)
NOTAH BEGAY: Everything has been great so far. I mean, certainly when you turn 50, something hurts every day, but as far as the back goes, just a refresher, it was an eight-millimeter herniation in my L4-L5 disc that is still there, which would surprise a lot of back surgeons that I can actually walk upright because it’s uncomfortable at times but it’s not getting worse. Certainly, it’s not going to get better, but it’s not getting worse.
The stability of that situation has allowed me to practice regularly, train – I’ve probably dropped about 15 pounds since the beginning of the year.
My colleague at Golf Channel, Arron Oberholser who was covering the Champions tour for a few years gave me the best piece of advice. He just said, “It’s very, very competitive; don’t expect to show up and be successful. You have to be ready. You have to train and go out there like it’s going to be a very competitive environment.”
GWK: Do you have a set number of tournaments in mind, or what happens if you get hot?
NB: For ’23, I’m committed to a split schedule between television and golf. NBC and Golf Channel have been great to me for the last 10 years, and I’m not going to just up and leave even if I get on a run. I’m going to fulfill my obligations to the network. That just seems to me to be the right thing to do.
GWK: Is there a senior major that you covet?
NB: Any of them, but the U.S. Senior Open sticks out in my mind, just the USGA championships are wonderful. I’m not really picky at this point. I’d love to win any of the events on the schedule.
GWK: Which of your PGA Tour wins is the one you're most proud of?
Notah Begay III lines up his putt on the third hole during the first round play of the 2009 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at Spyglass Hill in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
NB: I think the first one is probably the most special for I’d say most players. It’s a dream come true. In the midst of everything that’s happening in golf now, kids grow up wanting to make it to the PGA Tour and then wanting to win on the PGA Tour, and that was always my dream, and it still hasn’t changed. My dream now is to win on the PGA Tour Champions. That competitive drive, just how difficult and how competitive it is on all these tours requires a high level of commitment and sacrifice. My hat goes off to the guys out there on the Korn Ferry grinding it out, PGA Tour Canada, Latin America, and on the PGA Tour, because I cover it and I watch it, and now I’m back in it. So there’s a sort of deeper level of appreciation that I have for just exactly what these guys are trying to accomplish.
GWK: What have you learned about your game by watching the best in the world for the past 10 years or so?
NB: I think two things, the first of which is that the four wins that I had in just over 10 months doesn’t happen that often unless your name is Tiger. So I didn’t really give myself enough credit for what I achieved in a short period of time. I’ve tried to learn to appreciate that a little bit more in covering the game.
And secondly, just how much these guys put into their golf game. I mean, it is a 24/7 process. What we see on the television is just a fraction of the time that they’re putting in. When they leave the course, they’re going to train. They’re doing a variety of different things at home. A lot of those things I’ve taken and have implemented into my preparation in terms of different types of training philosophies.
I’ve been in the swimming pool every week trying to train as hard as I can but still protect my back. I’ve garnered a lot from talking to the best players in the world and then watching them, watching their mechanics, and not trying to do what they do because I can’t do that, but to sort of interpret it in my own way and apply it so that it’s functional for me, I think. I have a better understanding of how I need to hit the golf ball to be successful, and I think that that’s going to allow me to progress a little faster.
GWK: Do you still putt lefty and righty?
NB: I do. They’d better be ready for the left and the right-hander to come out. Definitely going to have the two-sided putter and putt left-to-right left-handed and right-to-left right-handed.
GWK: When did you know you were done as a player?
NBC/Golf Channel reporter Notah Begay on the fourth hole during the first round of the 2017 Hero World Challenge at Albany. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
NB: My accountant told me I was done. When the checks got a little too small where we didn’t need any more commas in those checks, so I knew I needed something else to do. My confidence was in the tank and I was banged up, and I’ve seen guys go through it. Being on the other side watching it, I feel for them. I’ve been there.
I think that’s one of the things that I always tried to impart into my broadcasting is I’ve stood in these guys’ shoes, both on the success side and on the failure side I think which has allowed me to lend a perspective to our viewer that comes from experience.
GWK: Why did you want to get into TV?
NB: I wasn’t sure. Tommy Roy called and offered me a chance to try out. I got a chance to go to Sherwood, and the obvious relationship with my insight with Tiger was helpful, but I think I’ve diversified outside of that in being very capable of talking about the college game, having won a national championship and played at one of the best programs in the country. I think I’ve surprised a lot of people in terms of evolving outside of that Tiger silo.
When Tiger sort of got hurt and fell off the map for a while, it kind of allowed me in the broadcasting space to grow and to kind of show people that I’m just not the Tiger guy. I’m OK with being the Tiger guy because he’s one of my best friends in the world, and what he’s done for our sport and what he’s done for me, I can never thank him enough.
GWK: As someone who is raising kids, has a junior golf association, you're captain of the Junior Presidents Cup team, you were a great junior golfer, what sort of wisdom have you come up with on what to do and what not to do with young golfers?
(L-R) Cara Banks, Notah Begay, Mark Rolfing and Michelle Wie West on the Golf Channel set during a practice round prior to The Players Championship on The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 11, 2020 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
NB: I think the biggest thing that I’ve had, because I’ve had some interaction with parents, running our own national circuit, both good and bad. I see a lot of parents that get it. They understand that keeping it fun but making sure that their junior golfer understands the importance of preparation and putting the time in that’s required. If you want to get better at any sport, especially golf, you have to — there has to be time on task.
Then there’s parents who I think are working off of their own agendas. They want the success for themselves more than they’re looking out for the welfare and the benefit for their child. That always doesn’t work out well. Even if the child becomes successful in college or at the professional level, there’s always some sort of aftereffects of that emotionally for the young person.
Every group of parents that I’ve ever talked to or young players, I’m very candid with them saying, look, if I’m sitting in front of 100 parents that work with 100 different kids, I’m like, less than 10 percent of you are going to be walking the fairways of the LPGA Tour or the PGA Tour someday. I’m sorry, but that’s just the reality of it.
In lieu of that, in understanding that, it’s important to make this as positive of a process as you can because the sport of golf offers so many beneficial opportunities, and it’s a lifelong game that – look at me, I’m 50 and I’m going to be a rookie.
It’s just a wonderful sport. You can stay competitive. They’re having the U.S. Mid-Am this week, the U.S. Senior Am is wrapping up. I saw Jill McGill who I played with in college win the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. It’s just a cool sport that appeals to cross-generational participation that I’m just proud to be a part of.
GWK: What made you say yes when Jay Monahan or whoever gave you that call to see if you’d be the captain of the Junior Presidents Cup team?
NB: I think I said yes before he even got the sentence out of his mouth. Anytime you have a chance to play for or represent your country, you do it. You’ve got to love your country, both the good and the bad, because it’s our country. We have to fight for it. We have to stick up for our beliefs and what it stands for.
I’ve got three generations of my family that have served in the military, and Native Americans as a percentage of population have the highest participation in military service in the country. In spite of a lot of history that isn’t so good for us, I just want to be an advocate for what this nation stands for and impart on to these young kids that they have a role and a responsibility as citizens of this country to uphold their beliefs and what we all believe in as a nation.
GWK: Diversity in pro golf, it's improving, but still lots of room for improvement. From your firsthand account as a Native American, what do you think is the future solution?
Notah Begay III, Golf Channel analyst, watches play during the second round of the 2022 Sony Open in Hawaii. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
NB: Well, I don’t know that there’s one sort of uniform solution for it. You know, you look at what happened just over 10 years ago, Joseph Bramlett through the old qualifying system through the PGA Tour made it through the Q-school in 2011, and when he did he was one of two Black players on the Tour. Two. Anytime in the ’70s and ’80s there was 10 to 12 players, and it had been over 25 years since another Black player had made it through the Q-school, and that was Adrian Stills in ’85.
You talk about the caddie system, right. So the ’60s and the ’70s caddies were much more prevalent in the game at clubs across the country. I think that was an access point which no longer exists, and so the avenue to more participation hasn’t changed. It’s an access issue.
Now, whether that access is being limited through costs, through membership, or through infrastructure depends on each player and their situation, but everybody understands, whether it’s the USGA, the PGA Tour, PGA of America, the AJGA, and our organization, as well, we understand that it’s important to attract as many kids that want to be a part of this game as possible.
So however we can lower those access points to get more kids involved, it has to be an industry-wide initiative to just get any and all kids that want to play golf into the game. The easiest thing is lowering costs in terms of tournament entry fees and equipment if we can do that.
GWK: What was the motivation to put your name on a junior event and get real involved on that sector?
NB: Well, I thought we could provide a tiered system for young players because I think that Ryan Burr, my former colleague at Golf Channel, he was the brainchild behind this whole initiative, and he asked me to sort of come along and partner with him to promote this whole concept.
It was based upon little league baseball, essentially, that when you first start in little league, you sleep in your own bed, you go play two games a week, and you don’t have to leave your town until you get good enough, and then you get recruited for a travel team, and then things become a little bit more demanding. There’s not really that availability for golfers to play this kind of little league type of system where they’re being evaluated in a similar fashion to the way some of the elite level players across the country are being evaluated in terms of points, access to points and rankings.
So what we simply tried to do by starting a junior Tour in New Mexico, a junior Tour through the southern states, I think we’re in like 11 states throughout the South, is No. 1, we lowered our entry fees to below $100 per event, and we also are playing a lot of our events that are awarding nationally ranked points to these kids that they don’t have to go far from home to compete in events on good courses, to give them the feedback that they’re looking for to determine whether or not they’re ready to take that next step.
If they are ready to take that next step, then we have a regional level that they can qualify for. If they’re good enough at the regional level, then they go to our national championship, which is on Golf Channel. So college coaches from across the world can watch our broadcast, and we provide backgrounds, biographical information, swing information, videos on our site of these kids so coaches can go on, and if they see a kid that is in 16th place that they’ve never heard of, they can go and sort of figure out whether or not that’s somebody they want to get in touch with.
We had a young kid named Lance Christensen from the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota. You can look it up on any website you want, and I’ve been there; it is truly one of the poorest communities in our nation. This guy would drive one way, one hour to the nearest golf course to play. Two years ago, he won a state high school championship in one of the smaller divisions, and I read about him, and I invited him to our national championship, and he was playing against some of the highest ranked junior golfers. Nick Dunlap was in the field, who went on to become the U.S. Junior champion the next year, Brandon Valdez. There were some highly ranked junior golfers. Lance goes in and wins the long drive contest, hits it 360. All these kids who know each other, who have been playing against each other all summer were looking at each other going, who is this kid? I didn’t know he had that kind of heat.
Well, he ends up, I make a call down to New Mexico State, and he’s now playing on that team down there. He’s like a 3.4 GPA, and he’s going to graduate with a degree.
I know Lance, he’s going to go back to Pine Ridge and he’s going to make a difference in his community. That’s what our junior series is all about is giving kids opportunities that they’ve never had, that they would have never had in the first place.
GWK: Have I gone the longest without asking you a Tiger question?
Tiger Woods shakes hands with Notah Begay at the 2001 Par 3 Contest at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo: Eileen Blass/USA TODAY)
NB: Yeah. You actually win.
GWK: How long do you think a Tiger practice session lasts these days?
NB: You know, based on level of discomfort, I would say he’s putting in an hour to two hours still. That guy has got a high level of pain tolerance. He’s pushing it. He wants to play again. Don’t bet against him breaking that win record at some point down the road.
GWK: I was going to ask you that, if you think he’ll win again. Should Tiger be allowed in the elevated events?
NB: I think he should be allowed anywhere he wants. I think there’s got to be some sort of provision; anybody that’s made over a hundred million – he should have his own category. In terms of what he’s done for the Tour economically over the last 30 years and then just sort of as a de facto spokesperson now for what’s happening, he should be able to access those events, and I promise you, there won’t be one player in the PGA Tour system that would say anything about it.
GWK: What’s the biggest misconception about Tiger?
NB: That’s a great question. You know, I think the biggest misconception for me is that he’s unapproachable and intimidating, because once you get to know him, you ask Justin Thomas or ask some of the players that have gotten to know him real well over the last 20 years, Jason Day, once you get past the initial sort of, wow, like shock of I’m talking to Tiger Woods, this is my idol, this is my hero, once you get past that, he’s a jokester, he’s a prankster, he’s the kind of guy that he’ll put shaving cream in your shoes. He really loves to be one of the boys.
I think that was a huge turnaround for him when Davis asked him to be an assistant (Ryder Cup) captain at Hazeltine (in 2016). It rejuvenated him because it connected him with that next generation of great player, connected him with Spieth and Thomas and all the new young guys that were winning tournaments at the time. It allowed him to do two things, to become more comfortable with this new generation of player, make more friends on the Tour, but also assess exactly what he needed to do to be at these guys. It was a win-win-win in all three of those areas for him.
GWK: I know he’s your best friend, but what does he do or what habits does he have that still annoy you?
NB: That guy? I don’t know. We’ve always got on really well. There’s only one time when he really didn’t pay attention to me. We were playing in the (2001) Presidents Cup, and I asked him for a lay-up number, and it was a par 5 I couldn’t reach. It was alternate-shot, and I asked him for a number that he wanted, and he wouldn’t tell me.
So what I did was I laid him up to his most uncomfortable number because I knew what his most uncomfortable number was, so I laid him up to a bad number on purpose because he was making me mad. He went on to skull it over the green into a back bunker. I had to hit a bunker shot on a par 5 to get up-and-down to tie the hole, and we both walked off the green kind of chuckling at each other because he knew that he actually should have given me a number for me to lay up to instead of me having to figure it out on my own. But we’re like brothers. We always have been. Earl was great to me. My parents couldn’t travel to junior events, so Earl looked after me like his own son, and Tiger is my brother. We’ve just been family for, gosh, almost 40 years now.
GWK: How good really is Charlie at golf?
Tiger Woods and Charlie Woods walk from the first green during the final round of the 2021 PNC Championship. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
NB: Charlie is a very, very capable golfer. I think that as he starts to play more tournaments, he’s starting to really get out there and play more tournaments, but I think that next step for him is just going to be playing more events on a national level and just learning how to score on a regular basis. Then you’ll really start to see him mature. He’ll start picking up some length. He has to live through his dad, and that’s a tough ask because I don’t know if my 13-year-old would listen to me when I tried to help him with his golf game.
GWK: I imagine the pressure is real. What do you think that pressure on Charlie must feel like?
NB: Oh, I don’t know. Tiger does such a great job of trying to alleviate as much of that as possible. It’s just tough when your father is the greatest player that ever played. I don’t know how you get out of, I guess, that shadow, so to speak. But Tiger and the family do a wonderful job of just trying to let it be about playing golf and having fun. But, of course, the rest of us are the ones that put a magnifying glass on the whole thing and the whole process, because it’s an intriguing story that people want to know about.
GWK: You kind of answered this earlier, but what makes you believe that Tiger is going to win again on the PGA Tour?
NB: I think he’s got one more in him, one more stretch of golf at some point. I hope I’m there when it happens.
GWK: You kind of answered this earlier, but you think Tiger is going to win again on the PGA Tour?
Tiger Woods and Notah Begay walk on the third hole during the third round of the 2017 Hero World Challenge. (Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
NB: I think he’s got one more in him, one more stretch of golf at some point. I hope I’m there when it happens.
GWK: Do you think he’ll play on the Champions Tour?
NB: It’s a perfect place. You get a cart, 54 holes. I mean, come on. Let’s get the Stanford team back together here.