After Kevin Na rolled in a seven-footer for par on 18 at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, he raised his arms in the air and hollered for joy (as shown in the photo above). During his 18th-green-victory interview, he fought back tears, saying he had “nightmares about finishing second” in the past, but after eight years of trying, he’s finally won a PGA Tour event.
I’ll be honest — I felt some chills up my spine and goosebumps from seeing the raw emotions of a teen prodigy who turned pro at 17 and probably thought he’d experience this moment a lot sooner. I don’t have time to find the words to describe it, but simply, Na’s reaction is one of the reasons we watch and love competition and sports.
I was also happy for Na to catch a victory for his father, who was diagnosed with leukemia late last year. When Na was in contention going into the final round of the Northern Trust Open in February, he talked about wanting to bring a trophy over to South Korea, where his dad is receiving treatment. Earlier that week I remember Na saying he had a major attitude adjustment in the off-season and a reality check. He didn’t have the best reputation (basically, I’d heard he was an arrogant douche — though I think he’s more misunderstood and just socially awkward), but from what I’ve seen this year and in my encounters with him, it seems like he has changed (but Geoff Shackelford says he saw him berating a security officer last Wednesday in Vegas, so who knows).
Still, obviously Na isn’t the most popular guy in the world amongst fans and fellow players. He’s one of the slowest golfers on tour. He’s incessantly backing off shots. His caddie lines him up for every drive and approach. His caddie plumb-bobs two-footers. He’s taken 16 shots on a hole. He makes non-whiff whiffs.
He even admits to resisting the urge to non-whiff a tee shot on Sunday where he maybe should have.
“I hit a terrible shot on 14,” said Na during his post-win presser. “I should have backed off. I mean, I always back off.
“And I said you know what, I’m just going to hit this, and I hit it and I made a terrible shot and made bogey, and to bounce back after that bogey, to hit that chip to three feet, I had a great chip from down there, I was able to relax a little bit.”
(I tried to count how many times he backed up during the final round of the Bob Hope, but I lost track after 25 in 10 holes.)
Locked in a duel with Nick Watney, a two-time champ on Tour this season, Na closed in style, carding birdies in three of his last four holes to eventually win by two shots.
However, Na looked like he might be in trouble on 18 when he pushed his three wood by a tree, but he actually had a shot to the green.
“I caught somewhat of a good break, I had a shot,” said Na. “I had hit it high, up and around the tree a little bit and I hit a perfect shot right where I wanted it, just below the hole, short right, but it wasn’t an easy two-putt, but I hit — people think I didn’t hit a very good first putt, but that putt was actually a good putt.”
The best part about the recovery shot was how quickly Na executed it. (Actually, we saw glimpses of his ability to play quicker during at least 10 of those 16 shots in the woods back at the Valero Texas Open.) Maybe Na will take away something from that and speed things up. Nah. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Congrats to Kevin Na for his maiden victory on Tour and no longer being third for most career money earned without a victory ($10,254,294 entering the week).