December 1, 2008

Back on the journey

Begay hoping good health returns him to one-time form

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Notah Begay III, by his reckoning, is halfway there in his bid to climb the mountain, as he describes it, and at times, Everest would have seemed the lesser challenge.

Begay, who has four PGA Tour victories on his resume, hasn't had a PGA Tour card since 2005 and hasn't had his health since 2000, ruptured disks in his back setting back a career that once hinted at stardom. Though he won't yet admit to perfect health, he concedes it's he is on the verge.

"It’s the closest I've been since 2000," Begay said. "I don’t have any pain when I'm swinging. I don't really worry hitting out of the rough. I played over seven years of golf worrying whether I could hit it out of the rough or not. You can’t play that way."

A return to health was the first step for Begay, who needed to get through a period of depression and to strengthen his back to ensure that it not chronically plague him.

"You've got to figure out what's wrong first before you can fix it," he said. "This past year I hooked up with some great therapists. I have a therapist out here, walking the whole course with me. I've got a great trainer. I think we’ve got our arms around it.

"Now I'm just waiting for my game to catch up. I'm certainly not playing my best golf right now. I'm hanging around. But everybody who knows me knows I can shoot 65, 62 any day I can tee it up. The scoring conditions are so good right now, if I can just get a couple of extra putts to fall I can move right up that leaderboard."

Begay, who once shot a 59 in a Nationwide Tour event, recorded a one under par 71 on the Stadium Course on Saturday, which in the birdie-fest that Q school has become this year wasn’t moving him in the right direction. Begay is at six-under 282 with two rounds to go, or seven strokes in arrears of where he needs to be to finish in the top 25 to regain his PGA Tour exemption.

"I don’t care where I end up playing," he said. "I'm going to have a place to play. I've proven that I can climb the mountain once and I think I’m going to be lucky enough to have a chance to climb it again."

One way or another, he'll get back to the PGA Tour, he said. "That’s the ultimate goal. But for someone like me it's not just getting to the PGA Tour, it's getting there and being able to compete for tournaments. Keeping my card, those are steps that exist in the intermediary phase. Ultimately, it's getting back into the top 50 in the world. I work every day toward that. I do yoga every day, I train every week. I'm doing stuff I never thought I' do."

His depression brought about by back ailments and his inability to compete at a level commensurate with his skill ("the athlete’s fall from grace," he said) is in his past, he said, and it was placed there in part by the finding the perspective that a family can bring.

"I’ve worked through it and I’m very happy," he said. "I’ve got a wife (Apryl) and a 10-month old daughter (Antonella). My injury may not have helped my golf game, but it helped me become a husband and a father and those are things I'll always be grateful for."