For the second week in a row on the PGA Tour, Kevin Na was (unfairly) targeted and harassed by fans for his reputation of being a slow player.
During the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, spectators heckled Na, who teed off no. 10 on Friday, throughout the back nine at Bay Hill. Na was visibly frustrated and reacted to the taunting. Things finally hit a breaking point, and in the middle of the first fairway, he flagged down rules official Mark Russell.
Russell, who was sympathetic to Na’s plight, offered to increase the group’s security detail, which Na accepted. For the rest of the round, a police officer accompanied them.
After he posted a one-under 71, Na declined to comment or explain what exactly was said to him.
“I’ve had a long day, guys,” said Na after he signed his scorecard. “I’ve really had a long day. Can I go, please? Appreciate it.”
However, Na’s playing partners, Scott Stallings and Ryan Moore provided some details — along with empathy on the incidents. According to both players, in one scenario, there was the same heckler on Thursday and Friday on the 13th hole.
Na was standing over his shot in the middle of the fairway when a spectator from behind the 13th green called out, “Take your time!” — which, naturally, caused him to back off.
“You don’t want that to happen to anybody,” said Moore. “That’s just disrespectful, so you hate to see that happen.”
Added Stallings: “He’s trying his absolute best. It’s unfortunate. I don’t know what was all shown on TV, but he was frustrated — he had a right to be frustrated.”
He also confirmed the heckling happened continuously in the first and second rounds.
“It was all day, both days,” said Stallings. “He handled it great. He just got fired up.”
Stallings, one of the faster players on the PGA Tour, said he felt Na’s pace of play was more than fine.
“(Na) was fast — he was doing the best he could,” said Stallings. “I don’t remember saying once in the two days, ‘Gosh, he needs to go faster.'”
When asked to elaborate on the comments directed at Na, he replied, “Stuff that doesn’t need to be repeated.”
Yikes. You’ve got to feel for the guy. He’s certainly not the slowest player on Tour, nor is he the only one who might gravitate toward taking a little more time than average. However, he’s definitely improved a tremendous amount in the past two years since the 2012 Players — which was the event that drew attention to Na’s difficulty to “pull the trigger” and back off on shots.
Then again, how many times have you seen Jim Furyk back off a five-footer? I’ve never heard of incidents where fans have heckled him to such a degree. Or any of the other players who have reputations for their penchant to take more time in their pre-shot routines, like Ben Crane, J.B. Holmes and Keegan Bradley, to name a few.
I spoke with Na on the driving range earlier in the week on Tuesday and he recounted the events from the previous weekend. He and Robert Garrigus, known as one of the fastest players on Tour, played together in the third and fourth rounds of the Valspar Championship last week, and a series of unfortunate events rekindled the discussion over slow-play issues, particularly when they were put on the clock Saturday. However, they played in under four hours (3 hours, 54 minutes), while on Sunday, they waited on every shot and took 4 hours, 15 minutes to play the final round.
“I don’t have a problem with (being put on the clock) at all, but everyone was saying, ‘Oh it’s because Na’s playing slow,.’ he said on Tuesday. “I really wasn’t. I really appreciate Robert Garrigus standing up for me and saying it wasn’t me — that meant a lot. I always felt like I had a lot of people supporting me on Sunday and that moved me and gave me some fire to play well.”
Na added that he felt good vibes from the crowd walking to the tee in the final round at Innisbrook, which inspired him.
“I actually told this to (my caddie) Kenny Harms yesterday at dinner,” said Na, who finished second at the Valspar. “Walking to the tee on Sunday, I had such a warm welcome from the crowd. I really felt like there were people out there cheering for me. It moved me. It felt great. I had a big smile walking to the first tee. I was relaxed. I played great. I had a little hiccup on the front nine, but I stayed there on the back nine, came back, but it was one shot.”
Asked if he felt like he was being targeted, Na replied, laughing, “I do.”
He added: “They’re trying to find a villain out there and I’m the one! I don’t get it! I don’t know what it is. I think there’s this misconception about me and the media hasn’t helped. The viewers at home are believing what they say on TV. I really don’t think it’s fair. All I can do is keep playing well and keep telling my side of the story. I’m getting supporters — like I said, Robert was supporting me. On Sunday we showed them. We were waiting on every shot, and Robert and I were eight-over as a group on the front nine. We were still waiting with that poor play!”
Garrigus said the group in front of them last Sunday, which included eventual champion John Senden, along with Justin Rose, weren’t the fastest players in the field.
“Sendo and Rosey were playing slow, but Sendo’s not a fast player,” said Garrigus on Tuesday. “He takes his time, he’s deliberate, but in the end, like I said, it’s just golf and we’re playing for a million dollars and if you want to tell us to hurry up, then have a nice day.”
There *is* a lot of money on the line and a ton at stake on the PGA Tour. It’s not like when we play with our buddies for a few bucks here and there (but mostly for bragging rights). In any case, Na deserves a fresh start.
What would Na say to the naysayers in his defense?
“I’m not that slow,” exclaimed Na. “I’m not slow. We all have times where we do take that extra time, but when there’s a stamp on you and the wind switches, Kenny goes, oh, the wind just stopped, why don’t you wait for that wind? And I back off. For everyone else, they’re going to say, oh, the wind might have switched, but for me, they’re say, ‘Oh, he’s just slow.’
“It’s all how you view that person. It changes everything. It really isn’t (fair)…
“I’ve matured as a person and as a player out here. I’m 30 years old now. I enjoy myself a lot more out here. I love it out here. I’m going to be be out here for a long time and I wish people start viewing me the way I am instead of what people are feeding them.”
So, back off of him! In seriousness, he’s truly a nice guy who has gotten a bad rap and he’s changed for the better — most of us grow and mature as we get older and deserve another chance.
On Saturday at Bay Hill, Na had a group of supporters walking with him, wearing t-shirts that read, “Kevin Na, Worth the Wait.”
Na said he didn’t hear any hecklers in the crowd during the third round.
(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)