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Na’s growth at tour comes at a quick pace

On Saturday night at the Valspar Championship, Kevin Na was in the midst of another slow-play controversy, again playing the role of lightning rod, unfairly in a way. But reputations can die hard, and a bull’s-eye on a man’s back doesn’t always wash off easily. That was certainly germane when a caddie in his group, Brent Henley, said animatedly, “It ain’t fair playing with Kevin Na. It ain’t fair.”

Henley was upset because he felt his boss, Robert Garrigus, got out of rhythm playing with Na. The two were put on the clock on the seventh hole, each later received a bad time and Na sometimes race-walked to his ball out of worry. Those events and Na’s rap sheet resurrected the accurate assertion there’s too much slow play on the PGA Tour.

“I know I got ripped,” Na said, “but I really don’t think it’s fair.”

All this was unfortunate because that final twosome fell back mainly because of extenuating circumstances – one lengthy delay for a lost ball, another for a ruling. But Na makes for an easy scapegoat, even though he has improved his pace significantly in the last couple of years. He’s not fast, and often is poky on and around greens, but he’s not the glacier he once was, by all accounts.

This, of course, is no way to enter a final round with a clear head, particularly when one stroke off the lead and in the same pairing. Then Na went from tied for first to an afterthought by going 4 over par on Nos. 6-8, thanks to a wild drive, bad chip and three putts from 7 feet. But he somehow overcame all that and wind gusting to 20-30 mph.His subsequent 2-under run vaulted him into second place, one shot behind winner John Senden, and put him on the marquee for reasons of resilience rather than dawdling.

This was some transformation. One night he’s a marked man, the next he’s a symbol of overcoming. So it’s time to give the 30-year-old a break – though not between shots, of course.

“As for how much criticism I got, I’m proud of myself how I played today and I hope people talked about every hole I was waiting for the group in front of us,” Na said.

More performances like that and he’ll be known for his golf instead of the idea that he used to take two hours to watch “60 Minutes.” People remember him more for his incessant waggling at the 2012 Players than for his Las Vegas victory the year before.

That’s likely to change, for Na has a complete game. His 2013 ended in April because of bulging back disks, halting four consecutive seasons in top-40 earnings. He’s back in form now, with three top-4 finishes this season.

“What he’s accomplished the last six years as a human being and player is amazing,” said caddie Kenny Harms, pointing to improved pace and social skills. “He’s a different person. He’s come out of that grinder mode and realizes he needs to smile. It’s quite a transformation. I told him (Saturday) night I was proud of him.”

Harms used to caddie for Hale Irwin on the Champions Tour. He said he left that job because he believes Na can be a superstar, adding, “It’s just taken a little longer than we thought.”

When sidelined because of the back injury, Na returned to his native South Korea for three months and rehabbed with a trainer. While there, he met the woman who is now his fiancee.

“The injury was a blessing in disguise,” Harms said. “He’s a very happy person.”

Editor’s note: This feature first ran in Golfweek magazine that hit doorsteps on March 21, 2014. If you’d like to subscribe, click here.

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