Begay proposes tribal model with Firekeeper

No. 18 at Firekeeper

No. 18 at Firekeeper

MAYETTA, Kan. – Standing near the adjacent tees at Firekeeper Golf Course’s ninth and 11th holes, Notah Begay III recently was describing how the wind would affect play on two holes. A hurting wind on No. 9 would help on the 11th, and vice versa.

“The net-net is balance,” he said.

The term “balance” comes up often when talking with Begay, who partnered with Jeff Brauer on the design of Firekeeper, which celebrated its grand opening May 15. Begay, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, usually talks about balance in terms of architecture – factoring in winds, finding the proper pacing between holes – but it also reflects a long-term objective he’s trying to accomplish in Native American communities, starting with the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, which operates Firekeeper and the Prairie Band Casino & Resort across Q Road, just north of Topeka.

“Our intent is to act as a collaboration, not to build a better golf course but to build a better community,” said Begay, a Native American of Navajo and Pueblo descent. 

For too long, tribal culture in the U.S. has been defined by extremes: poverty, addictive behavior, severe health problems, poor standardized test scores. Until relatively recently, Begay noted, the tribes “were solely reliant on the federal government for funding – sort of a federal welfare system.” 

In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act, which established federal oversight of Indian gaming. That ignited a boom in tribal gaming. Of the 562 U.S. tribes, 224 of them have gaming facilities – everything from bingo halls to full-blown casinos, such as the one operated here by the Potawatomi tribe. That fact also fosters the perception that the tribes are flush with cash. But Begay, whose foundation fights diabetes among Native Americans, challenges that assumption.

“These communities were in such dire straits before gaming that it probably will take another 20 years before you start to see improvements in high school graduation rates, college enrollments, standardized test scores, health-related initiatives. . . . You can’t overturn 200 years of oppression in 20 years,” he said. “It’s embedded in the culture right now, and we have to recalibrate.”

Begay’s cause has been embraced by Firekeeper general manager Randy Towner, who admits he probably had become too comfortable after 22 years at Alvamar Country Club near his home in Lawrence. Intrigued by a new challenge, he jumped at the Firekeeper job. 

As he approached the 14th tee at Firekeeper one day last month, Towner nodded to a man sitting on a mower nearby, then turned back to his foursome and quietly said: “This is more than a golf course.” 

Towner described the employee as an alcoholic who is trying to clean up his act. Towner said the man told him, “I’ve been a bad guy my whole life, and I want to be a good guy. I’d love to work here.” So Towner put him to work. 

Brauer said that one of the directives he and Begay received from the tribe was to make the course family-friendly in accordance with tribal values. So while the course tips out at 7,445 yards, the front tees are just 4,705 yards and typically don’t require carries over hazards. 

Warren Wahweotten Jr., the Potawatomi council member who spearheaded the Firekeeper project, also said the tribe wanted the course to “lay with the land. That was an important part of our Native American culture.” 

Begay had no objection, given the land’s natural movement and variety. That directive also helped hold construction costs to about $7.5 million.

Firekeeper’s first six holes play out along the wide-open prairie, with generous fairways to accommodate the site’s exposure to wind. Most memorable is the par-5 fourth, with a blind tee shot, followed by an approach made interesting by a 35-yard-long coffin bunker that extends all the way to the green. On the par-3 seventh, the layout changes character as it moves through woodlands of varying density for the remaining 12 holes. 

Begay is particularly proud of the 18th because of creates. Better players can try to reach the upper fairway, a hazardous shot that leaves a wedge approach if executed properly; lesser players can attack it via a fairway wood to the lower fairway and a mid-iron approach. When it was noted that the 18th green has almost a stadium-style setting, Begay laughed, saying, “I took a page out of Tim’s book (PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem).”

Thanks to the tribe’s 297-room hotel across the road, Firekeeper is being billed as Kansas’ first destination golf resort. Wahweotten said there are plans to build about five golf cabins near the course entrance, possibly by next year.

The goal is to do 19,000 rounds this year – more than a third of that number already are booked for tournaments – and build to 26,000 rounds in three years. 

Begay, not surprisingly, thinks that more tribes should be building golf courses. He’s in discussions to design courses for tribes in Lafayette, La., and Tucson, Ariz., and is hopeful those projects will get off the ground in 2012. His pitch to the tribes is that a golf course creates “layers of economic opportunity,” including retail, agronomy and food and beverage. But he also sees it as a bridge to the world outside the reservations.

“Typically tribes and the outside community have considered themselves separate,” Begay said. “What golf can do, and sportin general, is help break down some of those barriers.”










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