The 54-hole leader talks to John Maginnes of SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio following Saturday's 68.
By Ward Clayton, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Kevin Na views Sunday’s opportunity to win THE PLAYERS Championship as the next step in a career that began during the summer following his junior year in high school when he opted to turn pro at age 17.
The native of South Korea won on the Asian Tour at age 19 in 2002, his second year as a professional; on the Nationwide Tour at age 23; and last year on the PGA TOUR for the first time, at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, soon after turning 28. Now he is leading THE PLAYERS by one stroke.
“I’ve got my first (PGA TOUR) win, got that weight off my shoulders and the monkey off my back last year,” Na said. “I’ve come a long way the last three years, making the TOUR Championship a couple times and getting a lot of top-10s (23 since 2009).
“But being a PLAYERS champion would be something I’d be very proud of. This is as close as it gets to a major; so if I can win this golf tournament, that means I can win a major. It would do a lot for me.”
Na at first overcame the lonely world of being the youngest guy in just about every tournament he played. Then he suffered a broken right hand in January 2006 when he accidently slammed it in a car door.
“I think the first couple of years were really hard, and I got hurt,” Na said. “I spent close to a half-year to a year off the TOUR. And after that I started changing my swing. It’s been a long process.”
Now he is fighting himself, to a degree, to find his best golf swing. He has repeatedly struggled with his pre-swing waggle routine, apologizing to practice companions, playing partners and even while on the range for the aborted pre-swing process he undergoes that slows the pace of play. Still, the transition is working quite well as he leads this week’s field in birdies (20, including nine in the first round) and is first in three of the main putting statistics.
“Just bear with me, and hopefully we get tomorrow’s round in,” he joked.
In addition to Na’s focus on winning this week and the swing transition, he is also trying to earn a spot on the United States Ryder Cup team. He is currently ranked 15th in points where the top eight earn automatic spots in August and the next four are chosen by U.S. Captain Davis Love III. Na’s family moved to southern California from South Korea when Kevin was age 8.
“I’m an American citizen, and I don’t have my Korean citizenship,” Na said. “My mother is an American citizen, and I when I turned 18, I had a choice to become an American citizen. And I chose to become an American citizen. So I can play the Ryder Cup.”
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Now that 36 holes are in the books at THE PLAYERS Championship, the PGATOUR.COM staff were asked to provide their predictions for the winner Sunday night at TPC Sawgrass. Here are our choices. Fill out the form below and let us know who you’re picking this weekend.
ZACH JOHNSON (8 under, co-leader)
"I'd usually be leery of a 36-hole frontrunner on the Stadium Course, but this co-leader looked awfully comfortable here Friday in his 66. His driver's not going to disappear over the weekend, and he's plenty steady enough on the greens." -- John Schwarb, Producer
KEVIN NA (8 under, co-leader)
"The last two PLAYERS champions have ranked first (Tim Clark, 2010) and second (K.J. Choi, 2011) in the field for the TOUR's primary putting statistic -- Strokes Gained-Putting. Guess who ranks first after 36 holes this week? All Na must do is stay out of trouble and stay calm. And yes, I know -- that's easier said than done, especially here." -- Mike McAllister, Managing Editor
“Last time Na held a share of the 36-hole lead was in Las Vegas, where he notched his first career win. Na is healthy, confident and ready for a statement victory.” – Amanda Balionis, host, PGA TOUR Today
ADAM SCOTT (6 under, two shots off lead)
BEN CURTIS (5 under, three shots off lead)
LUKE DONALD (3 under, five shots off lead)
LEE WESTWOOD (3 under, five shots off lead)
By Ward Clayton, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – At the age of 28, Kevin Na has been a professional golfer for 12 years and a PGA TOUR member for nine. So he is considered a veteran, a position even more established by his share of the second-round lead on Friday at THE PLAYERS Championship.
However, the South Korean who moved to California with his family at age 8 is still just as famous for turning pro at age 17 after his junior year at Diamond Bar (Calif.) High School in 2001. In the same year, another high school junior, Ty Tryon, bolted high school for professional golf. Na played the Korean Tour first before reaching the PGA TOUR in 2004 while Tryon didn’t do well in immediately qualifying for the PGA TOUR.
“I didn’t know any better,” Na said on Friday after tying Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar for the 36-hole lead at 8 under. “I was just doing what I thought I needed to do. I just took a lot of good advice from what other people had to say, and like I always tell people, I was fortunate how well things worked out for me.
“I think if I were to do it over again, I think I’d go to college for a year.”
“Mark O’Meara told me this once, ‘The PGA TOUR is going to be here forever, and it’s going to wait for you,” Na said. “But college is something you do when you turn 18, and it’s that time of your lifetime where to get to experience something new with all the guys that are basically going through something that you have no clue what’s going to happen, learning how to be on your own.’
“But I skipped that for the TOUR. It’s OK. I think I can live.”
For sure, as Na has won once (the 2011 Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open) and earned more than $12 million. Since 2010, he has 14 top-10 finishes as his career has taken a big upswing. He hopes to one-up the tie for third he recorded here in 2009.
“I’ve won before, so that win last year did a lot for me confidence wise,” Na said. “I’m a lot more relaxed out there when I’m in contention.”
Kevin Na talks to SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio after his opening round at THE PLAYERS Championship.
By Bill Cooney, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Na had a course record on his mind at THE PLAYERS Championship.
And while such a lofty goal of breaking 63 at TPC Sawgrass will have to wait, Na’s opening round of 5-under 67 on Thursday was good enough to put him in contention for something even better.
“I played awesome today, made a lot of putts,” the 28-year-old Na said. The 67 was the first time in seven career starts at THE PLAYERS that he opened with a round in the 60s. In fact, it was just the second time in 17 rounds at TPC Sawgrass that Na posted a sub-70 round.
The only thing that held him back on Thursday was a tree that gobbled up his golf ball on the 423-yard first hole, this after he played his opening nine in 6-under 30. Na had to take a penalty stroke after he couldn’t identify his ball in the tree and wound up with a double-bogey 6.
“It was a pretty big tree, and I asked for any volunteers to climb up the tree, but nobody spoke up,” Na joked.
Regardless, Na rebounded quite nicely with birdies on Nos. 2, 3 and 6 for a quality start to what he hopes will be another quality result.
“It’s not an easy golf course,” said Na, who has missed the cut in four of his previous six starts here but did finish tied for third in 2009. “… You have to commit, and if you don’t pull it off, there’s a lot of high numbers out there and a lot of bad things that can happen. But if you’re on and you’re playing well, you can separate yourself from the field.”
Kevin Na hangs the shirt he wore when he carded a 16 on the par-4 9th hole in 2011 on some trees near the fairway.
Kevin Na didn't have to wait eight years like Craig Stadler did.
On Monday, just 362 days removed from the ignominious 16 he made at the ninth hole of TPC San Antonio in the first round of the Valero Texas Open, Na returned to the scene of the "crime" -- armed with a chain saw.
Na's troubles that day started when he had to take an unplayable lie off the tee. He also whiffed a shot, took five from the forest and incurred a two-stroke penalty when the ball hit a tree and came back and hit him.
To add insult to injury, Na had to watch the video replay before signing his scorecard to make sure his count was correct. He thought he'd made 15 but it was actually a stroke higher, contributing to an 80 and missed cut.
The return visit was made because Na is hosting next week's edition of "Inside the PGA TOUR."
"We were trying to come up with some creative and fun ideas to commemorate my performance on 9 last year and this seemed like a fun way to go back," Na told USA Today. "It was a lot of fun, that chainsaw had a pretty good kick to it."
Stadler's mishap came at Torrey Pines during the third round of the 1987 Shearson Lehman Brothers-Andy Williams San Diego Open. His tee shot on the 14th hole at Torrey Pines South had landed by a tree and he had to stand on his knees to get the ball under a low-hanging branch.
Before he hit the ball, though, Stadler placed a towel on the damp ground to protect his pants. He finished the round in second place but was disqualified after TV viewers called to protest that Stadler had improved his stance with the towel.
Since he did not assess himself a two-stroke penalty before signing his card, Stadler was disqualified. Eight years later, with the tree dying, tournament officials asked Stadler if he wanted to come cut it down – and like Na, he accepted.
The three-time PGA TOUR winner talks about adding TPC San Antonio to this schedule for 2012.
Matt Kuchar found out something Wednesday that Kevin Na already knew -- that veering off the fairways at TPC San Antonio is not something you want to do.
Na, of course, drove well right of the fairway on the par 4 ninth in the opening round of the Valero Texas Open. It was no-man's land, and as Golf Channel's cameras rolled, Na embarked on an odyssey that finally ended 15 minutes later with a shocking 16 on his scorecard.
That one shot ruined Na's chance to win: He was among the leaders at 1 under when he got to the ninth, and left knowing he would miss the cut. Remarkably, Na made three birdies (vs. no bogeys) on the back to shoot 80.
Matt Kuchar is well aware that what happened to Na could happen to anyone in the field.
"It seems to be trouble everywhere," Kuchar said. "If you're not driving the ball well, you're really in trouble. But even in the iron game, the greens are so demanding as well, undulating with big falloffs that a shot that's just off can end up in a place that is a really bad place.
"It can be a huge number if you get in trouble off the tee. It's not just take a drop out of a water hazard and it's a one shot penalty.
TPC San Antonio is in its third year as the host of the Valero Texas Open, but this is the first time Kuchar had seen the 7,500-yard track with huge greens. The course, beset by wind last year, was the toughest par-72 track on the schedule, excluding majors.
"This is [a course] where I'm anxious to be here, anxious to test my game, hope to have a good shot come Sunday afternoon," Kuchar said.
Kuchar skipped the event the last two years, then happened to be watching the telecast last year, when Brendan Steele held on for his first career win.
"This is an event that I remember being at home last year watching on TV thinking, 'I need to add that to my schedule,'" Kuchar said. "It looks like a difficult driving golf course, demanding golf course, one that would suit my game pretty well."
Kuchar enters this event in the midst of an outstanding playing streak. After a career year in 2010, he followed it up with a season that was almost as good in 2011. He finished sixth or better in the FedExCup standings each year, and his combined 20 top-10s almost doubled his career total.
He started slowly this year, though -- he didn't get a top-10 in a stroke play event until the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship -- but he was 10th at the Transitions Championship. He then nearly won the Masters, finishing tied for third after a final-round 69.
Adding TPC San Antonio to his schedule will help Kuchar prep for the big events in May and June -- notably THE PLAYERS Championship and the U.S. Open. Kuchar badly wants to win at TPC Sawgrass, where his tee-to-green game sets up perfectly for him, and Olympic, where he tied for 21st as an amateur in 1998.
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Kevin Na was struggling off the tee last year when he arrived at Augusta National to play the Masters. That's when he met swing coach Dale Lynch.
Na liked what Lynch, a former Australian PGA player, had to say and began working part-time with him.
Na has hit 70 percent of his fairways through the first two rounds of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Last year, he hit 58 percent of his fairways, ranking him 142nd on the PGA TOUR.
Thanks in part to his accuracy off the tee, he'll start the third round in solo third place at 9 under after a remarkable eagle-eagle finish on Saturday in which he shot a 9-under 64. Na will tee off with Martin Laird in the penultimate group on Sunday.
"I always struggled with the driver," Na explained. "I was searching for something to do for me to drive it better.
"I mean, I'm not a long hitter, and I wasn't the straightest hitter. I felt like the rest I did pretty well, especially around the greens. Honestly, I was tired of driving it poorly."
Na said Lynch – who also works with players such as Geoff Ogilvy and Aaron Baddeley -- looked at his swing prior to the Masters and made some adjustments, specifically with his backswing.
"My backswing is totally in a different position," Na said. "Because I think my backswing is in a different position, I think my long game is getting better."
The Plantation Course's fairways are generously wide, but should Na maintain his improvement in that category, it could allow him to make some serious noise this year.
Kevin Na eagled the par-5 18th, his second consecutive eagle to finish his round of 64 on Saturday.
KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Kevin Na eagled the par-4 17th when he holed out from 221 yards. He followed that with an eagle at the par-5 18th when his second shot from 277 yards landed 10 feet from the pin.
When he rolled in that 10-foot putt, he pumped his fist. Consecutive eagles are rare -- and an eagle-eagle finish had never happened at the Plantation Course.
"I think it'll be the best finish of my life," Na said. "I don't think I can do much better than that."
Indeed. It's doubtful few can do much better than Na in the last 10 holes at Kapalua. Na was 9 under in that stretch, fueling his big move up the leaderboard as he ultimately shot a 9-under 64.
That leaves him at 9 under for the tournament, in solo third place, six shots behind Steve Stricker and one behind Webb Simpson.
Na has plenty of strokes to make up if he wants to catch Stricker. But after an eagle-eagle finish, nothing seems impossible after tying a course-record for low nine with his back-nine 29.
"The 29s are pretty cool," said Na, who tied the tournament record for low 9. "I knew exactly what that putt was for on 18 and you could tell by my reaction."
Na actually was floundering a bit early in his round. He had dropped a shot at the par-4 fourth. Although he bounced back with a birdie at the par-5 fifth, he was still even par for the tournament and his round when he reached the par-5 ninth.
But a birdie there from 11 feet got him started. From there, he birdied the 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th holes before his spectacular finish.
"Back nine, all of the sudden it started coming together," Na said. "I started hitting some good iron shots in there, made some good putts, and I had it 5 under and I was pretty pleased."
Standing over his second shot at the 17th, he took out a 5 iron. Off a hook lie, he hit a little cut. After he swung, he turned to his caddie Kenny Harms and asked, "Is that the right club?"
It was. When the ball rolled into the hole, Na said he realized another eagle opportunity was coming up at the 18th. He calculated in his head -- he could shoot 29 on the back.
But he didn't have to worry about trying to control his emotions heading to the 18th.
"I think these hills make me too tired to get that pumped up," he said.
Even so, he'll certainly enter the third round pumped about his chances to make another big move. Having won his first PGA TOUR event last year, Na would love to add a second win this week.
"I feel like I need to validate myself and win out here again," he said. "But I know if I keep working hard at it, I'm going to get that second win."