Kevin Na bared his soul to the media and the world after Saturday’s third round of The Players Championship, candidly speaking about the demons he’s been battling for quite a long time.
As the 54-hole leader at the PGA Tour’s marquee event, Na received more television time than perhaps ever before, putting a massive spotlight on his bizarre pre-shot routine, which includes multiple waggles (he has to do everything in pairs) and whiffs (he’s not stroked because he doesn’t intend to hit the ball). He also backs-offs after setting up countless times. It’s painful and grueling. For him, too.
He knows he’s slow. He knows it’s wearisome to watch. Believe it or not — it’s even more agonizing for him than it is for his playing partners, fans and viewers. Imagine thousands of people ogling at you like a freak show, while you’re playing what’s a very difficult game at the highest level for millions of bucks under more pressure than the average person has ever experienced. It’s not easy.
On Sunday in the final round, Na made a concerted effort to play as fast as possible, out of courtesy for his fellow competitor and eventual champion Matt Kuchar. Beginning with the opening tee shot, Na looked almost rushed and nervous — with his eyes practically bulging out of his head. Though he backed off and waggled six to — I don’t know, I lost track — however many times, he tried to make up for the time by practically running in between shots.
Na struggled from the get-go, probably because he was more focused on trying to keep up the pace of play and perhaps a little self-conscious due to the peanut gallery than he was at closing out to win the tournament.
“Honestly, my main thought was trying to play fast,” Na told reporters after carding a disappointing final-round 76 to place T7. “I know the whole world is watching. I’m trying to play as fast as I could. I was 40 yards ahead of Matt basically trying to sprint out to my ball so I can get extra time.
“It wasn’t until the back nine that Matt and I slowed down and started talking because we got behind and I just started letting my caddie run up and get the yardage and started walking slow, and I started talking to Matt, and Matt goes, ‘Yeah, I haven’t been able to talk to you.’”
Na told Matt he was trying to help him out by playing as fast as possible and running up to his ball. Kuchar was aware and said he told his caddie Lance Bennett that he appreciated Na’s effort to help his fellow competitor and not slow him down.
“That was a nice thing for Matt to say to me,” said Na, looking genuinely appreciative.
However, some fans in the gallery weren’t quite as understanding or sympathetic. He could hear mumblings and heckles from the crowd.
“I don’t want to say upset, but that was a little disappointed at the crowd,” said Na, who looked like he was holding back emotions. “Like I said, most of the people were great, but there’s always some hecklers out there, like I was getting ready to get over the ball and you can just hear them saying, hit it, and I just got over the ball.
“And I backed off and they’re booing me. I said, look, guys I backed off because of you guys. It’s not like I backed off because I couldn’t pull the trigger.”
This was the first time Na had experienced this kind of heckling. The saddest part was he thought it was warranted.
“Honestly part of it, I deserve it,” he said. “I mean, I’m being honest. But is it fair? No. You put an average guy in between those ropes, trust me, they won’t even pull it back.”
Fair enough, but shame on the hecklers. At the same time, there were more supporters than haters and Na appreciated hearing their support.
This week might have been the wake-up call Na needed to finally make a serious concerted effort to revamp his routine and play faster.
“I’m going to try to take out the whole waggle, no waggle,” said Na, with conviction. “I’m going to try to do a little up‑and‑down behind the ball, but it’s going to take time, practice and tournaments, and I’m going to try to take out the whole waggle.
“Honestly, it’s going to be a battle.”
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)