The Van Cynical Mailbag: Notah Begay on Golf Channel and Tiger Woods, and which superhero would be the best golfer

February 19, 2014

Notah Begay can still play golf. He just happens to be doing other things instead. Like working as a golf analyst for Golf Channel at tournaments and in the studio. And designing golf courses. He’s quietly done three, a remarkable total considering that any new golf course construction in the United States is huge news.

Begay, who won four times on the PGA Tour including Memphis and Hartford in 2000, still has game. I was a last-minute addition to his group at Sewailo, a desert resort course he helped design in southwest Tucson. He played from the tips and had six birdies through 14 holes before he had to leave to fulfill another obligation. Had he finished the round, it surely would have been the course record since this was back in December in a small media outing the day before the course’s official grand opening.

With the University of Arizona moving to make Sewailo its new home course, any low number Begay put up would’ve fallen sooner or later. The point is, he still looks ready for prime time as a player. But he’s found a home at Golf Channel. With less travel and a steady paycheck, he can spend more time with his family. Focusing on projects to help fellow Native Americans — like Sewailo — is what interests him now.

Begay is a very interesting guy, and his personality and insight are just starting to come through as he continues to improve as a television talking head. Don’t forget, he’s a Stanford man. He and Casey Martin helped bring an NCAA golf championship to Stanford. The irony is, Begay had to work with a tutor to improve his verbal scores to get into Stanford, a school with pretty stout admission standards, and now he’s talking for a living.

After his abbreviated six-birdie round, Begay returned later for a media interview session that I hosted with him at the Casino del Sol, a pretty fabulous hotel-casino adjacent to the course. Here are some excerpts from our chat:

Van Sickle: You’re great friends with Tiger Woods. Is there one memory of him, maybe from your days together at Stanford, that stands out?

Begay: The 2000 PGA Championship. I was trying to make the Presidents Cup team and I couldn’t just coast in. I played well, had my best-ever major finish, shot 66, finished eighth and secured my spot the team. I was pretty happy. I go in the locker room at Valhalla, I watch Tiger and Bob May come down stretch. Bob’s putt hits a spike mark that knocks the ball back on line and it goes in. Then Tiger makes that incredible downhill, sliding left-to-right putt that I still tell him is one of best putts I’ve ever seen him hit. So I travel to another event and call him the next morning. It’s 9 o’clock on Monday and he’s out practicing. I was so dumbfounded, like he was the biggest idiot in the world. I said, You just won the PGA Championship, how many majors is that now? And you’re practicing? And Tiger says, Yeah, I gotta get ready for the next one.

Van Sickle: That sounds familiar. He’s always had that inner Ranger Rick.

Begay: Now, he’s much better. He’ll take a few days off. He went skiing over Thanksgiving with his kids. I think Lindsey Vonn is a good influence on him, gets him to do things with his kids he maybe normally wouldn’t do. I’m so proud of the way he’s rebuilt his life since everything came crashing down during the scandal. It’s not easy, everybody makes mistakes. He took it on the chin and brought a lot of this on himself. He understands that. We’ve talked about certain elements of that. Having to go through a divorce in front of the world, figuring out custody, you want to spend time with your kids. My kids are same age as his, I can really identify with his relationships with his kids. Just the way he’s been able to carve out time for them is impressive. No nannies when he’s home. He takes them to school, picks them up, takes them to games, picks them up. Sometimes, it’s a little tedious, people are around and bothering him. That’s a commitment I’m very proud that he makes.

Van Sickle: So is Tiger really at home making French toast and baloney sandwiches?

Begay: I didn’t say there wasn’t a cook in the house. I said there wasn’t a nanny.

Van Sickle: Was there a point during your PGA Tour career that you finally felt like you belonged out there?

Begay: For most pro golfers, it’s your second win. There are certain levels out there. There are PGA Tour cardholders; winners; multiple winners; major winners and multiple major-winners. Most players would agree, if you can win two, you’ve proven you belong. There are a lot of one-hit wonders in music and on the PGA Tour. My first win was an opposite-field event, same week as Bridgestone in Akron. My second was at Kingsmill.

Van Sickle: Do you still have those oversized cardboard checks somewhere?

Begay: I have two of them. It’s not like Happy Gilmore. They don’t give those out anymore. My dad has them in his house. It’s remarkable to see how small they seem now. They’re like finishing third.

Van Sickle: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being a TV golf analyst?

Begay: The multiple uses for a Port-O-Let. Some of us have been in the in the TV compound all day and I’ve seen people use the Port-O-Let for a sauna, lose their phones, lose their change. Seriously, the most challenging part is you have to do your homework. I cannot overemphasize how prepared the best guys in TV are. Gary Koch is most prepared I’ve ever seen. Brandel Chamblee is the most prepared person at Golf Channel. Delivery and content and timing and chemistry with your team is really important. This last year, I had my one-year anniversary with Golf Channel at Tiger’s event. I’ve tried to keep my mouth shut and just learn my job.

Van Sickle: What’s the best comment you’ve delivered on air?

Begay: I don’t know. During the Presidents Cup, Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama and their caddies were all looking at their putt. I made a reference that they were going through a very democratic process, that everybody had a say and I wondered, Who’s going to have the final vote on the break? Some writer out there compared me to Peter Alliss on that comment, in a good sense.

Van Sickle: That’s always a good thing. What’s been your biggest on-air gaffe?

Begay: I haven’t had any major gaffes yet. I was in the tower at the Valero Texas Open last year at the seventh hole. Gary Koch threw it to the seventh hole and I forgot it was my hole. There was dead silence. Then when I did come on, I made the terrible mistake of saying, “Oh my god, that’s my hole!”

Van Sickle: That isn’t so bad.

Begay: No, it was bad. A few weeks before that, NBC producer Tommy Roy said he was going to have me do some interviews. Don’t we have people to do that, I asked? Sometimes they’re busy, he told me, so sometimes we’ll have you get a comment from a player after a good round. He said, Whatever you do, don’t ask them how it feels. That’s the cardinal sin in TV. If they’re playing well or they win, it feels great. We want to get a little bit deeper than that. So Martin Laird shoots 64 or 65 in the final round to win and I get the interview. We’re on national television and I say, Well, Martin, it must feel great — how do you feel? So I had two gaffes that one week.

Van Sickle: You were with Justin Rose for all 18 holes on Sunday at the U.S. Open. What did you pick up from that?

Begay: I watched Justin hit every shot the last round. The middle part of the round, he didn’t play that well but he played through it. What I learned was, just don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s a hard game. I’m as close as anybody to the greatest player in history, Tiger Woods, and I watch how hard he works and how fit he is and how good his swing is and he still misses shots. I think, Wow, this is one of the best ever and if he’s making this hole much harder than it is, than the rest of us have no chance. Believe me, golf is a lot easier when you’re not playing it for a living.

Van Sickle: Are you definitely not playing any tournament golf this year?

Begay: I get a couple of invites every year. With all these young kids trying to make a living on tour, it’s tough for me to justify taking a spot from somebody who could use a start. If I do play, it’ll be on PGA Tour Canada or Latin America or China.

Let’s got to the Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, Which super-hero would be the best golfer?
–KLaugh56 via Twitter

Not Superman. He’s got distance-control issues. Superman: “Where’d my tee shot go?” Caddie: “Into the sun. Literally. Again.” Batman is too cerebral. Plus he’d have cape issues. Not The Incredible Hulk. He has anger-management problems, not to mention he’s not allowed on the course without a collared shirt. Hmm, I realize now that my knowledge of super-heroes is a couple of decades out of date. There’s got to be some more-recent super-hero with mind-over-matter powers who could direct his/her ball at will, right? I’ll go with The Flash. He could race ahead to his ball, kick it into a better lie or into the hole and race back to where he was before you knew he left. He would be The World’s Fastest Cheat.

Sick, Why are so many talented young Americans going the Euro Tour route?
–Chris Harder via Twitter

Because chasing it in the U.S. under the current qualifying system is…Harder, Chris. You can’t go from college right to the PGA Tour unless you’re a miracle worker like Jordan Spieth, you’ve got to become an indentured servant on the Tour and you’ve got to survive a couple rounds of qualifying just to get that low-paying job. On the other hand, the Euro Tour travels the world and it’s not for the light of pocketbook. The Euro route is a just an option, a dang pricey option.

Van Sickle, Who was the pro in President Gerald Ford’s group when he aced the fifth hole in the 1977 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic Pro-Am?
–Phil Cannon via Twitter

As the current tournament director of that long-lasting Memphis event, Phil, I would’ve thought you knew the answer. Oh, this is a quiz? OK, now I get it. Thank God for the Internet. I got the answer in one click. Ford was playing with Ben Crenshaw along with Vernon Bell and the tourney host himself, Danny Thomas. Ford presented the hole-in-one ball to Thomas after he pulled it out of the cup and Thomas promised to auction it off to raise charity money. He said he was going to ask for $500. In today’s money, adjusted for inflation, that would be approximately $721 million. It’s great trivia — who knew Ford, a hapless golfer, ever made an ace? As for quiz questions, Cannon-fire, what was the former capital of Burma? (Don’t bother to look it up. It was Rangoon.)

Van Cynical, How many strokes do you need to give @AlanShipnuck for it to be competitive?
–Howard Riefs via Twitter

Right now, not many. The only move I’ve got grooved is my snow-shoveling stroke. A lot of people think it’s pretty impressive even though my grip is a little strong. I tend to pull a few throws. Plus, I’m still using the old-fashioned wooden shaft and outdated plastic orange blade. Come summer, Alan is going to need eight but he’s getting more dangerous around the greens ever since he smartly put a 64-degree wedge in his bag. I might offer him six. This isn’t a charity operation, you know.

Van Sickle, Who would play you in a movie?
–Andrew Polson, via Twitter

I guess we’re ignoring the question of why. Well, I’m going to disregard obvious choices like Ed Asner, Jonah Hill, Bullwinkle, Erin Brockovich and Davy Crockett and go with Aquaman. I know that’s going against type because I don’t really enjoy swimming that much but my sources say he’s quite good at underwater golf. If he’s not available, maybe Tom Arnold or Ringo Starr.

Vans, Can you find Anthony Kim for us?
–PaulMacLeod via Twitter

Who do you think I am, a regular Inspector Clouseau? I bought a carton of milk at 7-Eleven yesterday. Anthony’s picture was on the side of it.

Sickle, If you could move the World Match Play to a different month and a different course—when and where?
–Brad Holder via Twitter

You’ve got to think outside the bar, Brad. That’s like thinking outside the bun only with adult beverages. I’d move the Match Play to May and play it the week after the Players Championship — and play it at the Stadium Course, which would be an excellent match-play track. It was kinda exciting when Tiger Woods won the U.S. Amateur there, remember? And speaking of things that’ll never happen, the Stadium Course would be an awesome Ryder Cup venue.