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Calling It Like Cosell

By Toby Smith
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Funny the way the golf ball bounces.
        Last summer, Notah Begay III hoped to be standing this morning on the first tee at the 2010 U.S. Open, a driver in his hands.
        Well, Begay is at the Open, held this year at famed Pebble Beach. But he is wearing a suit and tie and sitting behind an L-shaped desk on the sixth fairway.
        In his hands is a stack of paper.
        An Albuquerque native, Begay is part of the Golf Channel's broadcast team. He's providing the cable station with analyses and highlights.
        "It's the next best thing to being inside the ropes," Begay told the Journal in a telephone interview. "I'm cheering for friends and trying to entertain viewers."
        Begay, 37, is a four-time winner on the PGA Tour but has been plagued by a bad back much of the last few years. His game slipped so far that he was forced to go to Q School in late 2008, where he worked to regain his PGA Tour card.
        But his struggles continue. In 2009, he played in 15 tournaments, pocketing $54,645. He has played four PGA Tour events this year and won no money. He has also played three Nationwide Tour stops and taken home $3,534. This from a golfer with more than $5 million in career earnings.
        "My back is OK," he said, "but I'm just not playing well."
        Begay, who lives most of the time in Dallas, won't say TV is in his future, but he is enjoying these stints.
        Last fall, the Golf Channel did a series about golfers giving back to communities and spotlighted Begay, who heads up a charitable foundation. Rich Lerner, one of the reporters on the series, came back to Matt Hegerty, the Golf Channel's coordinating producer, and said, "Matt, Notah Begay is a really sharp guy. Thoughtful, well-spoken. If he ever wants to go into TV, he'd be great."
        When Hegerty realized Begay would not play in this year's Masters, he initiated discussions.
        "We needed help," Hegerty said. "We were going to do 30 hours on TV that week."
        A deal was firmed up in January. Begay, however, was still playing golf tournaments and could not come to Orlando, Fla., Golf Channel headquarters, to receive training.
        His broadcasting experience was admittedly slim. As a kid, he helped Albuquerque radio sports personality Henry Tafoya do high school sports.
        Growing up, Begay's idea of a great sports communicator was Howard Cosell.
        "The Golf Channel definitely took a chance on me," Begay said.
        A Stanford graduate, he decided to hit the books.
        "I did my own research. I compiled a profile on every player in the field. Stats and things that were not necessarily golf-related."
        The Golf Channel ran on-air two sets for the Masters. One in Augusta, Ga., and the other in Orlando. Begay spent all his air-time in the Florida studio.
        The golf stuff was easy, he said. "I'm still in the game and still around it."
        In addition, he hunted anecdotes. For instance, that Phil Mickelson had majored in psychology in college. "Stuff that the average fan might not know."
        His notes filled three, 4-inch binders, which he lugged in a small suitcase.
        When the green light came on, he stayed himself. "I just tried to fit it. I wanted to be a good teammate."
        He TiVo'd his performances and watched them at night.
        "He exceeded all our expectations," said Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman, the first full-time female play-by-play commentator in the history of the PGA Tour.
        "I remember our first segment together," Tilghman said. "I told him the questions I was going to ask him ahead of time so he didn't feel surprised. He smiled as if to say fire away and knocked every answer out of the park. That was the last time I felt like I had to 'prep' him for anything."
        "He's really comfortable in front of the camera," Hegerty agreed.
        To no one's surprise, the Golf Channel sought out Begay for the U.S. Open. This week, he's sitting behind a desk — on the sixth fairway at Pebble Beach.
        What helps him greatly, Begay said, is that he has played Pebble Beach Golf Links close to 100 times. He played it as recently as three weeks ago when he went to the Bay Area for a wedding.
        "I know how fairways have been cut and how that may affect certain holes."
        He also knows the players, though the Open field will have roughly 60 more players than the Masters.
        So what's ahead — after this week?
        Golf, first and foremost. "It's extraordinarily difficult for me to sit there and not be able to play," Begay said. "I just need to play more. I'm going to get quite a few starts in the summer and hopefully play my way back into form."
        Down the road is less clear.
        "It's always good to keep your options open. There are some very talented people in broadcasting. And there certainly are places to move up on the Golf Channel."
        Said Tilghman, "If he wants to pursue TV as a career, I believe he'll go far."

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