Through the first 26 holes at the Plantation Course at Kapalua, Kevin Na was plodding along — not striking the ball that well or that bad, but making 10-15 footers for par (on the comeback because it’s easy to misjudge the very, very grainy and difficult greens). Then he rolled in a 15-footer on No. 9 that turned around the momentum and went on to fire 29 on the back nine (nine-under in last 10 holes), highlighted with an incredible eagle-eagle finish.
On the 555-yard par-4 17th — which plays shorter since it’s downhill off the tee, but the approach shot is brutal and quite intimidating, especially with the wind (in my opinion making a par there feels like a birdie) — Na pulled a 5-iron from 219 yards. With the wind blowing left-to-right, he started the ball at the sizable hazard guarding the front and left of the green (behind, too) and hit a perfect cut that rolled in for eagle.
“Honestly, 17 was just luck,” said Na, 28, in his post-round presser. “Yeah, I hit a great shot, but I got lucky. The nice thing was I turned around the hole after and made two good shots and made (another) eagle.
On the par-5 18th Na played his drive off the downslope and left himself with 282 yards into the green. He knocked a perfect 3-wood to roughly ten feet and rolled it in for back-to-back eagles.
Na, who turned pro at 17, joked he didn’t have a problem keeping his adrenaline in check because of the strenuous hike Plantation requires (it’s one heck of a workout).
“I think these hills make me too tired to get that pumped up,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t have that much energy. I mean, I was very happy, but I wasn’t jumping up and down or crazy or anything like that. But yeah, I mean, after a good hole like that, you always have to gather yourself, get back to what you’re doing and focus.”
Well, not a bad finish, huh? Na is the first player in tournament history to go eagle-eagle on those holes to finish his round. (In my opinion 17 and 18 are two of the coolest closing holes played on Tour.)
“I think it’ll be the best finish of my life,” said Na, with a big smile. I don’t think I can do much better than that… I’ve made two eagles in nine holes before, but I don’t think I’ve no, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve made back-to-back eagles in my life. Now I have.”
Na, who snagged his first victory at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children last October, shot nine-under 64 to climb up the leaderboard to third place at the halfway mark. He has some catching up in front of him since the sizzling Steve Stricker is 15-under. Na hopes his hard work in the off-season — he also switched swing coaches to Dale Lynch — will pay off with more success in 2012. While he’s still young, it took him ten years to capture his first win (and get that monkey off his back), which took a huge weight off his shoulders.
“I feel like I need to validate myself and win out here again,” he said. “But I think and I know if I keep working hard at it, I’m going to get that second win.”
Na gets a bad rap for his slow play and poor attitude early in his career, but he’s actually a good guy (yes, I realize he’s obnoxiously slow and it drives us all nuts, but says he’s working on that). In fact, he might be one of the more friendly players on Tour now. It wasn’t always that way, but he had a reality check last year during the off-season when his dad was diagnosed with leukemia (but very good news — he’s now in remission and doing well).
The attitude turnaround was a major factor in finally snagging that elusive first win.
“It was one of the biggest reasons why I think it helped me break through — being positive,” he told me after his presser. “You can’t play perfect, and staying positive is all it takes to play well out here, just like today. I had nothing going until the back nine. I played positive and shot nine-under the last ten holes.”
(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)