Im about 70-75 percent, he said at the time. Im at a point where I can at least go day in and day out without hurting it.
But hurt it he did. He missed two months after the Masters, and another two after the U.S. Open, before abruptly ending his season the first week of September.
It all started with Begay trying to improve upon back-to-back multiple win seasons. He worked too hard in the off-season, injuring his back in December 2000.
He has yet to return to form, but occasionally, there are glimmers of hope ' such as Thursday.
Begay tied a career best, shooting 63 to earn a share of the lead as play was suspended due to inclement weather.
I feel great, Begay said. I really feel confident about my abilities.
Begay is knotted at 9-under par with Justin Leonard and last years Q-School medallist Jeff Brehaut. Last weeks runner-up, Jim Furyk, John Senden and Esteban Toledo are one back after a trio of 64s.
Chris Riley, who played alongside Begay Thursday, had a 7-under 65, as did David Peoples. Bob Estes was also at 7-under through 17 holes when the horn sounded with thunderstorms in the horizon.
Thirty-eight players will return Friday morning to complete their opening rounds.
Begay, who started on the back nine, made four straight birdies on holes 14-17, and after a par at the 18th, put together five more on Nos. 1-5.
The closest I have ever come to that was when I shot 59 (on the Nationwide Tour in 1998), Begay said of his nine birdies in 10 holes. He then added he wasnt thinking about shooting 59 this time.
I was trying to shoot 58. Ive already shot 59. I was trying to birdie all the holes and eagle my 18th, he said.
The 30-year-old Native American is making his seventh start of the season. He hasnt finished better than tied for 44th, but its a far better beginning than that of a year ago.
Begay missed the cut in his first 11 events in 2002, breaking 70 only once. He ended the year 157th on the money list.
'All last year was just a rebuilding process,' he said. 'It was trying to play elite-level golf with below-par abilities, physically.'
This is Begays final season under the three-year exemption he received for winning twice in 2000.
That multiple-win season came on the heels of a two-win 1999. He also made the 2000 Presidents Cup team, but that seems so long ago in the wake of annular tears of L-4 and L-5 discs in his lower back.
Begay admits he suffered from depression during his tailspin: When you go out and you shoot 6-, 5-over, day after day, youre just like, Well, am I ever going to be that good again?
He believes a positive change in attitude will lead to a positive answer to that question.
As far as Im concerned, the body is going to follow the mind, and if I can continue to keep a positive frame of mind and stay focused, I think my body and my skills will do the rest of the work for me, he said.
He might be able to use this week as a showcase for possible suitors. Begay's endorsement deal with Nike ran out this week. He is using a Titleist driver and ball, and Ping irons.
That's better than Brehaut, who is using a mixed set of clubs after his playing set was stolen from his garage Saturday night.
He arrived at the course early Monday and worked with onsite manufacturers in getting the shafts cut to the proper length and the heads shaved to the desired weight.
He spent hours trying to get the feeling right with his wedges, and didn't even pick a putter until Thursday morning.
'The last three days I've been running around here really trying to get those issues settled,' he said.
None of that seemed to matter.
Like Begay, Brehaut and Leonard started on the back and made nine birdies and no bogeys. Leonard got off to a great start, turning in 6-under 30, while Brehaut closed in strong fashion with four finishing birdies.
You know, the wind is really the only defense this place has, Leonard said of the Sunset Course at The Country Club at Mirasol, which is hosting this event for the first time.
If it's not going to blow, the scores are going to be pretty low. The rough is thick in some spots, but you can certainly find some lies. So unless the wind really picks up, you're going to have to make a lot of birdies.