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Notah Begay becoming a real contender

Begay shows off his Canon Greater Hartford Open trophy. Allsport.

His name in the Navajo language means "Almost There,'' which no longer seems to fit Notah Begay when it comes to his status on the PGA Tour.

When his 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole curled into the right side of the cup, Begay became the only player this year to win PGA Tour events in consecutive weeks, and the first since Tiger Woods won three straight at the end of last season.

Begay has been described alternately as the only American Indian on tour, the only switch-putter in golf, and a college teammate of Woods, even though Begay was the No. 1 player on a Stanford University team that won the NCAA Championship in 1994 when Woods was still in high school.

Almost there?

He might have arrived on Sunday, considering the exclusive list of players he joined.

In the past 15 years, only a dozen other players have gone back-to-back seasons on the PGA Tour with at least two victories, and none of those are described by anything but their stature as among the best in golf.

The list starts with Hal Sutton, Corey Pavin, and Curtis Strange in the mid-1980s, includes Greg Norman and Fred Couples at the turn of the decade and finishes strong with Mark O'Meara, Davis Love III, Nick Price, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Vijay Singh, and Woods.

Woods and Begay are the only ones to do this in their first two years on tour.

All but two of those players -- Mickelson and Duval -- have gone on to win a major championship. Begay has played only three majors and has failed to break par in 10 rounds. In that respect, he is not even close to being "almost there.''

But give him time.

"He's one of the young guys. He's got a knack for winning golf tournaments, because it's not easy to win,'' said Mark Calcavecchia, still somewhat shocked that Begay holed that 20-foot bender for birdie on the final hole at Hartford to finish off a 64.

Nothing has ever come easily for Begay, who spent seven years living on the Isleta Indian Reservation south of Albuquerque.

He and Woods, the first minorities selected for the U.S. Walker Cup team in 1995, are clearly changing the face of golf.

But while Woods was introduced to the swing in his high chair and nurtured through endless summers of golf with his father, Begay had to save his pennies to buy a bucket of range balls at a municipal track a mile from his house.

When his piggy bank couldn't match his desire to play, Begay approached the head pro at Ladera golf course one night in the parking lot and begged him for a job in exchange for free range balls. Every morning before the sun rose, Begay would line up the carts, make sure they had keys, and fill buckets with range balls.

At the end of the day, he would clean out the carts, hose them down, check the batteries, and charge them for the next day. In between were hours of pounding balls, refining a self-taught swing that has held up quite nicely.

"Looking back, I got the better end of that deal,'' he said.

Don't get the idea Begay is a hustler.

Two months after speaking to American Indian children about the dangers of drinking and drugs, Begay was arrested for DWI after backing into another car in the parking lot of an Albuquerque watering hole.

He emerged with his character intact by setting a rare standard in sports. He freely admitted wrongdoing, worried about his credibility with kids, informed prosecutors of a previous drunk-driving arrest, and spent a week in jail.

"It's been an uphill battle,'' he said. "I'm not ever going to take anything for granted anymore. I guess I'm just happy to be playing, and that's maybe reflective in the way I'm playing. I'm playing with a lot of spirit, and that's when I play my best.''

While Woods tries to make it four in a row for Team Stanford this week in the Western Open, Begay is going over to England to watch another sport on grass -- tennis at Wimbledon -- before heading to Scotland for Loch Lomond and the British Open at St. Andrews.

The last time he was in England was in October for the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, where he beat Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal before losing to eventual champion Colin Montgomerie.

"To be honest, I'm not in the same class as these people here this week,'' he said at the time. "If you were to look at all the players' golfing resumes, mine would be the shortest.''

His resume is getting longer by the week.

He has won four times in the past 10 months, second only to Woods (9). If he is "Almost There,'' he is traveling at a high rate of speed.


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