Mr. Begay? I think he's in the bar."
The restaurant hostess is right. Notah Begay III is in the bar, standing at a tall cocktail table with his younger brother Clint, but he's not drinking. Notah hasn't touched alcohol since the night of Jan. 19, when he crashed his car into a Jaguar in the parking lot of an Albuquerque nightspot. But dining out has its rituals, and Step One is a 30-minute wait in a room lined with bottles of clear and colored liquids. "I still go to clubs and bars with my friends," Begay says. "I've just had to make some minor adjustments."
When golf pro talks about adjustments it's usually a matter of grip pressure or ball position, the sort of stuff that helped Begay win last week's FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. In Begay's case, though, an adjustment is telling the barmaid he'll have soda water or a Coke. It's having someone on hand to drive his car—this summer it's Clint—because Notah's New Mexico driver's license has been suspended for a year.
"I don't miss it," Begay says, "it" being alcohol. The beer before dinner? The glass of wine with a good meal? The celebratory brews after a low round? They're history. His blood alcohol level is holding steady at 0.00, down from a reported January high of 0.21, more than twice the legal limit in New Mexico.
The people who rolled their eyes in late February, when the 27-year-old touring pro served a seven-day, nights-only jail sentence for his second DWI in five years, will surely ask: That's it? At the very least, the case seems to call for the usual 12-step cleansing: "My name is Notah, and I'm an alcoholic." Begay, they observe cautiously, is half Navajo-half Pueblo and spent much of his early life on the Isleta Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico. The image of the drunken Indian still has legs. But Begay has not joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he says the PGA Tour-approved psychologist who counseled him after his January conviction concluded that he was not, in fact, a problem drinker.
Another restaurant, another city. It's Jan. 12, precisely one week before Begay will dent a stranger's Jaguar in Albuquerque; he is in the lounge of the Benihana restaurant in Honolulu's Hilton Hawaiian Village. Seated at a cocktail table while visiting with acquaintances, he takes an occasional sip from a big bottle of Asahi beer. But once he's in the dining room, he switches to Coke. He seems more interested in food than drink, ordering a teppanyaki dinner that includes steak, shrimp and lobster.
The conversation is upbeat: Begay talks about his prospects in that week's Sony Open, his two wins as a PGA Tour rookie in 1999, the Nike-tour-record 59 he fired the year before, his memories of Stanford, where he roomed with Tiger Woods and played No. 2 alongside Casey Martin on the 1994 NCAA championship team. He talks about a commercial he has just shot for Nike apparel in which he walks along with fellow pro Ted Tryba looking "calm, cool and collected" in his Dri-Fit shirt and slacks. To Begay, who decries the classic movie stereotype of Indians as whooping savages, the image he is projecting is gratifying. "I don't claim to be an activist," he says, "but I'm an advocate. I try to promote positive images and break down stereotypes."
Some of the crew members who shot the commercial are at a nearby table. "I think by the time he left the shoot he'd made friends with just about everybody," says Nicole LaTell, an account supervisor for the advertising agency producing the spot. "And he's actually a very good actor," adds Bill Karow, the art director.
The marketing people aren't yet sure how to use Begay. They know he lived for part of his childhood in an adobe house with plug-in heaters and no hot water. They know his grandfather, Notah Begay, was a Marine and one of 375 Navajo "code talkers" who used their tribal language to transmit secret information for the U.S. government in World War II. They also have heard how, when Begay tied the single-round NCAA tournament record with a 10-under-par 62 at the 1994 collegiate championship, he played with streaks of red clay under his eyes—a Native American custom for those embarking on a long journey. On the other hand Begay was raised a Roman Catholic, has a B.A. in economics and contemplates the teachings of Greek philosophers. And forget the plug-in heaters; last year Begay won more than a million dollars on the Tour.
"He is a dream to work with," Karow says. "He's not like Charles Barkley in the old commercial. Notah is saying, I am a role model."