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Notah Begay’s roots run deep in New Mexico

He doesn’t play the game nearly as often, or at nearly the same level he once did.

But golf still means the world to Notah Begay III.

As does the place he learned it.

And because of that combination, the Albuquerque native is taking his best swing at using one to help the other.

“This is it, man, this is home – I love this place,” Begay told me earlier this week while at Santa Ana Golf Club to announce the inaugural Rio Grande Charity Slam. “This whole idea, and the motivation behind it, is a product of my love for New Mexico.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without (reporters) writing good things, without guys like coach (Mike) Brown at Academy, (former Ladera Golf Course head pro) Don Zamora, Bruce Musgrave – my soccer coach; he helped me prepare for the SAT exam. I had a lot of help getting where I’m at, and I always give back and help this city and state.”

Begay, 41, is a former PGA Tour pro and won four events from 1999-2000. The former three-sport Albuquerque Academy star – named New Mexico prep athlete of the year in 1990 – traded the clubs for a microphone a couple of years ago and is an analyst for the Golf Channel.

Begay lives in Dallas with his wife, Apryl, and children Antonella, 6, and Santiago, 4, but says Albuquerque is still home. And it will be, officially, this summer.

“It’s great,” he said. “We’ll be back here by the first week of June and will stay at least two months.”

Begay wants to be hands-on with his inaugural Rio Grande Charity tournament at the Santa Ana Golf Club on June 26-27. The event is a major fundraiser for his Notah Begay 3 Foundation and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque. It is expected to raise more than $100,000, with 50 percent going to each organization. Begay says the proceeds will primarily be used to help fund youth programs in New Mexico.

He will remain with the Golf Channel, flying in and out of Albuquerque.

Building events

Begay hasn’t played in a PGA Tour event since 2012 and doesn’t plan to try to qualify for any this year, choosing instead to focus on his TV career.

He has hosted a benefit for his foundation each of the past six years in Verona, N.Y. That tournament is a competition between pro golfers. Last year, it featured Rickie Fowler, K.J. Choi, Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel and Henrik Stenson. Tiger Woods, who played in it previously, had to pull out with an injury.

The celebrities at the Rio Grande Charity Slam – which so far includes former Masters champion Mike Weir, PGA Tour veteran Tim Herron, former NFL All-Pro Brian Urlacher and ex-NBA player Kenny Thomas – will play alongside golfers who pay to play in the event.

Notah Begay III, who has a fundraising tournament in New York, is bringing another one to New Mexico. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

Notah Begay III, who has a fundraising tournament in New York, is bringing another one to New Mexico. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

“It’s a different deal,” Begay said of his two fundraisers. “The one in New York (the Notah Begay III Challenge) is a tournament. This is more of the traditional four-person scramble, where it’s about the cause and not the score.”

That being said, Begay says he thinks the Rio Grande event “has the makings to be as big” of a fundraiser as the NB3 Challenge.

Rio Grande Charity tournament organizers say sponsorships are selling even better than anticipated, and the only playing spots left are at levels of $5,000 and $10,000 per foursome. Visit riograndecharityslam.com for information.

Begay says he fully expects Woods, his close friend and former Stanford teammate, to play in the Rio Grande event down the road, possibly as soon as next year.

As for his playing future, Begay said he still plays “a bit,” and is locked into one tournament this summer – the San Juan Open in Farmington in June. It’s an event he won in 1998.

Tiger’s chase

I got a chance to pick Begay’s brain a bit about Woods and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major professional victories. Woods, who once looked like he would shatter the record, has been stuck on 14 such titles since winning the 2008 U.S. Open.

He will miss next week’s Masters after having back surgery this week.

Can he still break Nicklaus’ magical mark?

“I think he has one more big, major championship run in him,”Begay said, “like he had in the 2000-01 era (four straight major victories). But he’s got to solve his back issue. He’s 38 years old. The frequency of injury has increased, and the time to heal has gotten longer. It’s a matter of getting that stabilized, then allowing himself to go out and win big tournaments.

“My thing is if he gets one, he’s going to get 20. If he gets to 15, he gets 20. But that being said, you’ve got to get to 15 first.”

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