By Kristin Butler (originally published by Indian Country Media Network)
Golf can be a sanctuary for those seeking a few hours of solitude or some quiet companionship in the great outdoors. And nowhere is that serenity more valued than in the many secluded courses of Indian country. A feeling of remoteness is one of the most treasured characteristics of tribal golf courses. For the most part, fairways are void of residences and buildings. Golfing in Indian country very often means being immersed in nature.
And Native-owned courses are usually immaculately groomed. “Tribal golf courses are the most highly maintained facilities in the world,” says Notah Begay III (Navajo/San Felipe/Isleta Pueblo), the first Native American to win on the PGA Tour. “It’s so nice when you get the chance to break away from the day-to-day grind to play on these pristine courses, to get lost in the meadows and in the dunes.”
Back in 2002 when Begay, a Stanford graduate and four-time PGA Tour winner, set out to launch a golf course development service for tribes, golf was still a budding economic foray for Indian country. “There was a time when tribes were uncertain about whether to move forward with golf,” says Begay, who currently serves as an NBC and Golf Channel analyst. “There was a debate between the business side and tribal councils over whether or not golf was a good fit. Now, we can look at how much golf has done for tribal businesses. It’s been such a positive thing.”
Breaking into the golf design/build field involved a lot of false starts for Begay and his team. Their mission was simple: to help tribes develop new golf courses and to renovate existing golf properties. Begay also had both practical and honorable mandates for partnering with tribes. “The one thing that I impress upon my partners that help me build these properties is that we work for the tribal community. We work for the people. So it’s vital that we do our best, and it’s vital that we finish on time, and it’s vital that we finish on budget, and it’s vital that we hire as many tribal members as possible.” Begay and NB3 Consulting are committed to serving and improving Native communities and work with local TERO (Tribal Employment Rights Office) offices on both job creation and placement.
For Begay, doing business with Indian country is not about commerce or convenience. He’s invested in the long-term impact of economically diversifying and empowering tribal communities. “We want to continue to give back to our communities and make them better. It’s about sustaining our communities — from a business standpoint, a cultural stand-point, and from a sovereignty standpoint. Our golf courses represent that.”
One of Begay’s first deals was with the tribe now behind the award-winning Sequoyah National Golf Club in Cherokee, North Carolina. “It’s wonderful that the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation chose to work with us,” Begay says.
Since hiring Begay as a consultant, Sequoyah National is happy to report business is on the upswing. “Rounds are up approximately 25 percent over last year, when we had just begun our recovery,” says Kenny Cashwell, PGA general manager at Sequoyah National Golf Club. “I am optimistic about the future for Sequoyah National and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have a product that they can be extremely proud of.”
Begay believes his experience and his firm’s unique market advantage help NB3 deliver for clients. “I understand how the Gaming Act was positioned to help our communities become independent. I understand the economics of business.
I’ve played the best courses in the world, and I’ve stayed in the nicest hotels in the world,” Begay says. “So I know what it’s like to have a resort-experience at the highest level. I want to bring those experiences back and share as much of it as I can with the businesses that have so graciously chosen to work with us.”
And that’s what NB3 Consulting does.
Begay’s vision of combining the design and construction services under one contract, with a single point of responsibility, was instrumental in streamlining the process for the tribal nations with which he works.
NB3 Consulting’s mission has led to some tremendous results, including Firekeeper Golf Course in Mayetta, Kansas, and Sewailo Golf Course in Tucson, Arizona. Additionally, NB3 Consulting helped engineer the Sequoyah National project from start to finish.
“It is a very, very competitive environment in golf design, because there are so few projects,” Begay says. “There are more golf courses closing in America than there are opening. And for us to go and compete with the best designers and the best developers and to win these businesses and have the courses be ranked so high in their categories is inspirational.”
Integrating Native culture in tribal business is a core principle for Begay and NB3 Consulting. He is a firm believer in building businesses rooted in and reflective of indigenous values and traditional ways. “Having those things in place are symbolic of maintaining our cultural identity as Native peoples,” he says. “But also understanding that in order to do well in modern business, we don’t have to sacrifice who we are.
“That’s my message to young kids: You don’t have to choose one or the other. You can still maintain your culture and identity as American Indian — your practices, your beliefs, your faith — and be successful in the modern business world. It’s not a one or the other choice.”
Even the names of the properties NB3 Consulting has worked on reflect that commitment to incorporating Native identity into golf course branding and design. “They’re direct derivations from the cultural traditions of these communities,” Begay explains. “Sequoyah developed the first alphabet for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Potowatomi were charged with the task of maintaining and keeping the fire burning. They’re the firekeepers. Sewailo means of the flower world. The feel they emerged from the flower world.”
Firekeeper Golf Course
The Prairie Band of Potawatomi may be the keepers of the fire, but it’s the wind that rules this course in Kansas, just 20 miles north of Topeka. Firekeeper, NB3 Consulting’s first signature design, is in a state not widely regarded for its golf courses. But it was this high-caliber destination course in the midwest that solidified NB3 Consulting’s name in the industry.
In 2011, NB3’s debut project opened in Mayetta, Kansas. Begay weighed in on design concepts for virtually the entire 240-acre tract. “This is his first signature course and we’re the first golf course designed by a Native American on Native American soil,” Randy Towner, course manager, said.
Begay sees the marriage of golf and nature with accessible entertainment as a major appeal of golf courses in Indian country. “It’s its own sector of golf. It’s different than other resort golf, because it’s got a casino component; it’s got entertainment,” Begay says. “There’s so much more to these properties than golf, and I think that that’s what’s the most intriguing thing about them.”
When Firekeeper opened in 2011, GolfWeek named it the best course in Kansas. In 2016, FireKeeper came in at No. 1 in Kansas on Golfweek’s Best: State-by-State Courses You Can Play.
Sewailo Gof Club
In 2013, NB3 Consulting introduced Sewailo Golf Club, an economic enterprise of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe that has redefined golf in the southwest. The par-72 championship course winds around lakes, streams and waterfalls, and is situated directly south of Casino Del Sol Resort’s AVA Amphitheater in Tucson, Arizona. Sewailo Golf Club was the top course in Arizona, according to the 2016 Golf Advisor Rankings, and the #6 course in the country.
Sequoyah National Golf Club
Owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and developed by NB3 Consulting, this Robert Trent Jones II-designed 18-hole course was immediately named the No. 2 new golf course in the country by Golf Magazine when it opened in late 2009. “The conditions at Sequoyah National are outstanding all around,” Cashwell says. “We had a recent Pro-Am and the entire field was buzzing over how wonderful the greens are.”
After a winding drive through mountainous terrain to reach Sequoyah National, golfers are greeted by undulating bluegrass fairways and bent grass greens, and behind them, the Great Smoky Mountains and a sea of botanically diverse forests that, in autumn, color the skyline in yellow, pumpkin and crimson.
In addition to honoring the geographical aspects of the land, NB3 Consulting embraced tribal history. At each of Sequoyah National’s holes, for instance, golfers can learn about Cherokee culture — Native legends and stories are etched into every tee box sign.
The course has also helped funnel money to the tribe’s nearby Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, where golfers go for dining, entertainment and to stay in one of its 600 luxury rooms.
“For us to have successfully completed three highly ranked golf courses that support tribal business is a dream come true for me, because serving my community and my people has always been at the forefront of my priorities,” Begay says.
From his days at Stanford with college roommate, close friend and fellow pro Tiger Woods, to his first PGA Tour win in 1999, to his work today as a golf commentator for NBC and the Golf Channel, Begay has given his time and energy to his home Pueblo and Indian country at large. He has dedicated his life to fostering the success of Native youth who benefit from his nonprofit the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3F) that increases Native youth access to sport and strives to combat the devastating rates of obesity and diabetes in Indian country. “I love our kids. Our kids are doing these great things, these young people,” Begay says.
Begay intends to continue to use his high-profile and his companies to strengthen the economic might of Indian country. Golf, he thinks, will be a big part of that. “I’m very positive about where golf is in Indian country right now. Tribes are so business-savvy now,” he says. “They appreciate what golf does and what it can do for their business models.”