ORLANDO, Fla. – On Friday, after being heckled by spectators at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Kevin Na could’ve used a hug. One day later, the 30-year-old Na hugged it out with the ringleader of a group of fans wearing white T-shirts that read, “Kevin Na, Worth the wait!”
Na had just holed a 13-foot par putt at Bay Hill’s 13th when he noticed a group of fans situated behind the green had gone to the trouble of showing their support.
“I walked up to the green and kind of peeked over and read what (the shirts) said, and I started laughing,” Na said. “It brought a big smile to my face.”
Na became golf’s poster boy for slow play when his waggles, whiffs and failure to pull the trigger were beamed around the world during the telecast of the 2012 Players Championship. The spotlight shined on his pace of play again last week when he was put on the clock at the Valspar Championship and accused of playing slower than the paint manufactured by the tournament sponsor takes to dry. Then, during the second round at Bay Hill, fans directed their ire at Na. After multiple incidents, Na huddled with Mark Russell, the PGA Tour’s vice president of rules and competitions, who offered to increase the security that accompanied Na’s group.
“It was all day, both days. He handled it great, but he just got fired up,” said Scott Stallings, one of Na’s playing companions during the first two rounds, noting that the comments directed at Na included “stuff that doesn’t need to be repeated.”
Afterward, Na dodged questions from Golf Channel and begged off further inquiry from reporters. “Can I go? I really had a long day,” he said.
A day later, his spirits lifted by the fan support, Na said of the incident Friday, “It was very frustrating, but you know what? It’s all behind me. I try not to take it personal.”
His caddie, Kenny Harms, is quick to come to Na’s defense, claiming, “If you poll the players, they don’t think Kevin Na is one of the slowest players now.”
Indeed, Na has made great strides, though no one is calling him one of the faster players, either. The two pace-of-play issues involving Na are separate concerns. Slow play is a Tour epidemic that needs to be better enforced. Rather than be criticized, Na should be applauded for overcoming the demons that prevented him from pulling the trigger.
“It was hard,” Na said. “People don’t realize the effort I had to put into taking the club back. They were booing me, heckling me. ‘Take it back. Pull the trigger.’ To play at this level and the pressure we’re under, it took a lot of mental strength, grinding it out and forcing myself to take it back in the pre-shot routine.”
Harms offered this perspective: “He changed everything to try to stop doing it, and he paid the price because he didn’t play well after that. He was playing the golf of his life. But for Kevin, it was more important for him to play faster than try to play well, which shows that he cares what other people think. He doesn’t want to be that slow player.”
The only things that slowed Na and Trevor Immelman on Saturday were trying to figure out where Na’s ball crossed the hazard line when he yanked his approach into the water on 16 and when he waited for a ruling on 18 after his approach hit the rocks fronting the green, ricocheted right, and landed out of bounds. Na made double bogey to finish with 71 and drop 11 strokes behind leader Adam Scott.
Nothing negative today, Na was asked afterwards. “No, not all,” he said. “Except that bounce at 18. I mean, c’mon. Really.”