NBC expects Begay to add candor to golf coverage

Michael Hiestand, USA Today

2/27/13

NBC, offering up the only new voice in a major role on national TV golf this year, says former PGA Tour pro Notah Begay hasn’t come on board as a course reporter merely to capitalize on his friendship with Tiger Woods, or because Begay is a diversity hire.

Begay, a Native American, has known Woods since they met in junior golf when he was 12 and Woods was 9. Begay says the late Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, eventually “took me in under his wing.”

After failing to qualify for the Tour this season, Begay replaces Dottie Pepper, who left NBC to help the PGA of America develop junior golf.

So there’s the obvious question of whether Begay, who played with Woods on Stanford’s golf team, is with NBC because he goes way back with the most enigmatic superstar in sports. NBC lead golf producer Tommy Roy is adamant it’s not.

“I told him as we hired him that it had absolutely nothing to do with Tiger,” Roy says, “and I’ll never ask him him to use his friendship to get something from Tiger. And I told that to Tiger’s agent.”

Begay says that’s true. “I’ve never been asked to get access to Tiger,” he tells USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve appreciated that in production meetings when Tiger comes up, I’m not supposed to be the resident expert. I can offer tidbits, just like I can offer tidbits on Ernie Els.”

Begay, 40, says he’ll treat Woods as he would anybody. “I won’t say something on-air I wouldn’t say to him at dinner,” he says. “I’ve got great personal relationships with a vast amount of players, but I want to treat all of them with the respect I demanded in my career. I don’t want to go after the cheap laugh.” (Too bad; TV golf could use a few more.)

Begay also will be an occasional studio analyst for Comcast- owned NBC/Golf Channel, which is about to dominate TV golf as it airs PGA Tour action over the next six weeks.

As a Native American, Begay is automatically an anomaly in TV sports. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a full-blooded Native American on any channel doing anything,” he says. “They’ve been so oppressed, we’re lucky to see our kids graduate from high school. When I took the job here I set a precedent.”

Roy says NBC was attracted to the candor Begay showed in past Golf Channel cameos, with diversity considerations being secondary.

“The thing I’ve found in all athletes who become announcers is they’re afraid to give their true opinions because they’re talking about their friends, or at least guys they played with,” Roy says. “For a long time, the most inflammatory thing you’d hear on-air was, ‘That’s not what he had in mind’ — even when somebody had knocked it into a lake. Like (NBC’s) Johnny Miller, whatever (Begay’s) thinking, he’s saying. That (Begay) happens to be Native American is just a huge bonus.”

But Roy, who grew up in a small Arizona town near the Mexican border –”where, as a white child, I was in the minority” — says he has long-admired Begay’s life story. Begay’s father is a member of the Navajo Nation, and his mother is with the Pueblo of San Felipe and Pueblo of Isleta.

Begay, who grew up in New Mexico, says after he was introduced to golf at 6 by his father, he collected recyclable cans to pay for range balls. At 9, he got a job washing bathrooms and cleaning carts at a course and was paid in range balls. He ended up basically living at the course. “It was almost like my child care,” he says.

“It’s pretty darn special to see a Native American do what he’s done, let alone a kid who partly grew up on a reservation,” Roy says. “And he did it before Tiger made the sport cool.”

And Begay had success, if short-lived, as a player. In 1999 he won two PGA Tour tournaments and finished 30th on the money list. The next year he won two events and finished 20th in earnings. Then came a herniated disk in his lower back and years of new or recurring injuries.

But back to Woods. We have to ask: Is he really dating skier Lindsey Vonn? “I have no clue,” says Begay, laughing.

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