PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Kevin Na, who held the 54-hole lead at the Players Championship, is a slow-walking punch line. So go ahead, jokesters, get your one-liners out of the way now.
Even Ben Crane wants to play through.
Even Sergio thinks Na’s pre-shot routine is ridiculous.
Emily Rose has fewer inner demons.
OK, we get it. Na is slow. Painfully slow. Agonizingly slow. Do-I-have-time-for-a-nap? slow. But after all of his little waggles, half-waggles, full waggles, back-offs and intentional whiffs … Na actually hits the ball pretty darn well, no? Wrote Graeme McDowell on Twitter, “If you removed all Kevin Na’s idiosyncrasies before his takeaway, his action is actually pretty pure.” That’s high praise among the dimplehead community.
Na, 28, was leading by one entering the final round of The Players, the biggest stage of his life. That much was evident Saturday night. In his post-round news conference, he seemed like a player more in need of an exorcism than a sports psychologist, trotting out such lines as, “there’s a lot going on in my head,” and, “not only am I grinding for the golf tournament, but I’m fighting within myself in my mind.” Everyone loves that kind of candor. It’s endearing. It’s real.
But on Sunday afternoon, Na contended with a demanding TPC Sawgrass layout, his inner fistfight to swing the club and, most troubling, a few heckling fans. Never will there be room in this game for the latter.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Na said late Sunday afternoon, after he signed for a final-round 76 that dropped him into a tie for seventh and cost him a chance at $1.71 million. But even Na didn’t expect this kind of vitriol.
The heckling started early, when Na began to lose his grip on the lead. Chants of “Nah, nah, nah, nah. Nah, nah, nah, nah. Hey, hey hey, goodbye!” rang out.
On the sixth hole, after Na had made bogey on the previous hole, one fool told him, “I got $2,000 (on you); you better not start choking.”
On the ninth hole, as he stood over his tee shot, finally ready to go, Na heard several fans yell, “Pull the trigger! Pull the trigger! Hit it!” Na backed off, shaken. The fans promptly booed. He went on to bogey the hole, one of four dropped shots on his opening nine.
What those boneheaded fans didn’t realize was that Na was trying to speed up his play. Probably too much, in fact.
“My main thought was trying to play fast,” Na conceded. “I know the whole world is watching. I was 40 yards ahead of Matt (Kuchar) basically trying to sprint out to my ball so I can get extra time.”
At one point during the final round, Kuchar finally caught up to Na and said, “I haven’t even been able to talk to you.”
“I said, ‘Look, Matt, I’m trying to help you out by playing fast and run up there,’ ” Na said, “and he appreciated that I was running up there trying to get in time to help my fellow competitor, not feel like I’m slowing him down.”
Na said he and Kuchar, the eventual champion, waited on every shot until the 12th hole. When they began to fall behind midway through the back nine, it was due to Na’s poor play, not his maddening indecision over the ball.
“It’s not an envious thing to go through,” Kuchar said. “He’s had a tough day. Here he had a chance to win a big tournament, and I don’t know how many other chances he’s had like this.”
Or, worse, what the reaction will be like the next time he’s in this position. Asked if he’s ever dealt with hecklers before, Na said, “No, not really. But honestly, part of it, I deserve it. I’m being honest.
“But is it fair? No. You put an average guy in between those ropes, trust me — they won’t even pull it back.”
Why does he hesitate over the ball at all? It’s a side effect, Na said, of a recent swing change with coach Dale Lynch, with whom he began working at the 2011 Masters. Na said he struggles to adjust to his new balance points in his swing. When he’s uncomfortable, he resets. Sometimes repeatedly.
In practice rounds, Na waggles and whiffs and makes others wait, just like in the actual tournaments. He marks and lines up any putt longer than 2 feet.
“It’s not like he’s doing it on purpose,” said Kenny Harms, Na’s caddie. “He feels more bad about it than anyone else. He’s doing everything he can to get faster.”
Na’s quirks have become so notorious, in fact, that when he is in the locker room or fitness trailer, his peers joke, “I’ve got to play with you today; I’ve got the short straw.”
To his credit, Na realizes he has a problem. His pre-shot routine consists of a little waggle, a half-waggle, a little waggle, a half-waggle, go. Ideally, in a week, the problem would be fixed, the entire waggle gone. Realistically, it’ll take much longer than that.
“We’re going to get better,” said Harms, who added that Na is “10 times better” over the ball than he was last October, at the Frys.com Open. “We’re going to be one of the faster players out here.”
Said Na, “I do need to play faster. But the average person has no clue how much pressure we’re playing under and how tough it is and how much of a fight it is mentally. I honestly think with all that going on, I did pretty well fighting. I had a good fight.”
Perhaps next time he won’t get KO’d by the fans.