Rude: Slow-play controversy surrounds Na again

Kevin Na during the third round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort.
Kevin Na during the third round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort. ( Getty Images )

Saturday, March 15, 2014

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – An animated voice near the Valspar Championship scoring trailer pierced the quiet air and at least one pair of ears Saturday night.

“It ain’t fair playing with Kevin Na,” said the voice, belonging to Robert Garrigus’ caddie, Brent Henley. “It ain’t fair.”

The veteran caddie would go on to say he thought Na’s slow pace got Garrigus out of his rhythm to the point “we felt like we were running.” Before that, Garrigus was running away on the scoreboard, having birdied three of his first five holes and getting to 10 under par for a four-stroke lead.

But the final twosome of Na and Garrigus was put on the clock on the seventh hole for being out of position. Na got a bad time on the 13th tee and Garrigus, a fast player, received the first bad time of his professional career at 14. As it happened, Garrigus missed two 4-foot par putts on the last seven holes and finished 54 holes one shot up on Na at 8 under.

The two will play together again on Sunday at Innisbrook’s difficult Copperhead course. That means some mental adjustments are in order. That also means good news to other pursuers.

Let’s put it this way: The chances of U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, three off the lead, look better now than they did before the controversy stirred.

“We’ve just got to stay in our time frame and quit worrying about him,” a frustrated Henley said.

A few minutes later, after Garrigus did a television interview by the scoring trailer, Na asked the leader, “Did you rip me a new one?”

“No, man,” Garrigus said. “I gave you props. You’re way better now.”

A while later, in the interview room, Garrigus echoed that sentiment, saying Na is a “lot faster now,” never mind that he flinched and made a whiff-like swing over the ball before resetting a couple of times. Garrigus also downplayed the flow issue raised by his caddie, saying, “I got a little out of my rhythm, but it didn’t bother me that much.”

He went so far as to say he had fun playing with Na and that his back nine of 37 related to poor swings.

Though Na is faster than he used to be and tries not to be pokey, he is an easy target because he has been notoriously slow over the years. Reputations can die hard. His pace was particularly a problem at the 2012 Players, where he waggled incessantly and had trouble starting his backswing.

Na says he’s a “ton” better now, but has to deal with an unfair “stamp” on his back. He stopped the mad waggling soon after that Players. He isn’t as meticulous when aligning the line on his ball before putting. He’s quicker at the ball.

“I try my best to not affect the guys I play with,” the candid one-time winner said. “I’ve improved 90 percent. I’m very conscious of the guys in front of me and behind me always looking. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments, which I appreciate.”

Na and his caddie, Kenny Harms, said the golfer shouldn’t be criticized for his pace Saturday because of extenuating circumstances. They figure they lost 10 minutes because of a five-minute wait on No. 3 after Pat Perez, in the group ahead, lost his ball and had to come back to hit another tee shot. Then a ruling Garrigus needed by a cart path on No. 5 took a while.

“We were out of position, but was it our fault?” Na said. “No. We were probably 10 minutes behind. We played at our pace after that, but we looked bad.”

Na also worried because another bad time in the round would have brought a one-stroke penalty. But lunar eclipses are more common. No PGA Tour player has received two bad times in a round and received the stroke penalty.

When on the clock, the player hitting first has 60 seconds and the person going next has 40.

Despite the two delays, the last twosome played in 3 hours, 54 minutes, which Na called “not too shabby on this golf course.” That time is one reason Harms defended Na.

“Is he the fastest player?” Harms said. “Absolutely not. But he’s not a slow player like he used to be. When I first started with him, he was unbelievably slow. He’s adjusted. Unfortunately circumstances happen and people say, ‘It’s him again.’ ”

Na said his father still thinks he needs to get the lead out. But Na joked that he should give dad some blame for his reputation.

“I say it’s his fault,” he cracked, smiling. “He told me to focus on every shot.”