Na seeking victory to send overseas to ailing father

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Kevin Na, in search of his first TOUR victory, will join Aaron Baddeley and Fred Couples in the final group.
February 19, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- When Kevin Na was 10 years old, his father Yong took him to Riviera Country Club to watch what was then called the Nissan Open.


He remembers seeing Fred Couples play in the PGA TOUR event and following the eventual champ Corey Pavin around the historic course. Na even had his picture taken with Pavin, who gave the youngster his autograph, as well.

"I still have the picture," Na said Saturday, grinning. "It's pretty funny. Corey has got the moustache (and I'm) this little chubby kid with glasses on. If you want to see it, you've got to pay me. It's that good."

What would be even better, though, would be for Na to win his first PGA TOUR event on Sunday at Riviera. He's got a great opportunity, too, trailing by just one and playing with Aaron Baddeley and the same Freddie Couples -- now 51 years old and considerably grayer -- in Sunday's final group.

Unfortunately, Yong Na, who taught his son to play golf and caddied for him when he won on the Asian Tour, is back in their native South Korea. The 57-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia last year and is currently receiving treatment there. Forget the time difference, though, he'll be glued to the TV and checking the scores in his computer.

"After this week, my mother is going back to look out for him," Na said. "I'd really like to send that trophy over to him."

The well-traveled Na says he can't think of a better place to finally get that breakthrough victory than in his adopted hometown and at a tournament where he first started dreaming of playing on the PGA TOUR. That is, of course, "besides a major," he said.

Na talks after Round 3

After his third round, Kevin Na talks about what it would mean to win his first TOUR event this week.

The Northern Trust Open could have major ramifications for a lot of players, though -- and there are 16 with particular motivation who will start the final round within five strokes of Baddeley's lead. And one of those, the resurgent Vijay Singh, who is two off the pace, already has a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

"I expect a good duel," Baddeley said. "We're all playing well. Freddie has obviously had a lot of success on the Champions Tour, so he has the feelings in there, knows how to win, so I think tomorrow is going to be a good challenge for all of us.

"But I think you've got to watch for other guys coming through, as well, the guys that are at 7 and 8 (under), because if you can get it going out there, you can shoot a low one."

Baddeley, who shot 67 on Saturday, is looking to snap a victory drought that has stretch to four years now. Since he picked up his second TOUR win at the 2007 FBR Open, the young Aussie has deconstructed and now, resurrected his swing. He came to Riviera with momentum, too, after tying for sixth last week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

"I'm excited to be back in this position," Baddeley said. "I feel very comfortable. ... This definitely is what I play and practice for is to be in the lead and have a chance to win the golf tournament."

Baddeley may be the frontrunner and Na may be Los Angeles' adopted son, but the center of attention on Sunday will surely be Couples, who is bidding to become the third oldest winner in PGA TOUR history. Riviera is his favorite course, and he knows every twist and turn of Hogan's Alley better than anyone else.

50+-year-old winners on TOUR
Sam Snead 52 years, 10 months, 8 days
Art Wall 51 years, 7 months, 10 days
Jim Barnes 51 years, 3 months, 7 days
Josh Barnum 51 years, 1 month, 5 days
Fred Funk 50 years, 8 months, 11 days
Craig Stadler 50 years, 1 month, 18 days
*Fred Couples is currently 51 years, 4 months and 17 days old

Couples has won the Northern Trust Open two times -- the first in 1990 when Baddeley was eight years old and Na was six and still living overseas. Golf's king of cool also has three runner-up finishes and 19 top-10s here, and Couples finished third at Riviera as recently as 2008 when Phil Mickelson outmaneuvered him.

The veteran plays most of his golf now on the Champions Tour where he won four times as a rookie last year. But Couples' experience at Riviera will undoubtedly serve him well on Sunday, and he says "if I don't play like an idiot, I'll be fine." Saturday's 70 was steady but he knows he'll need to make more birdies to pick up 16th TOUR win.

"This is my 30th year on TOUR, and I like the way a lot of people play," Couples said. "I pay attention to a lot of people when I'm paired with them. But I've got my own game. So if Aaron Baddeley goes out there and hits the ball like a machine, I'm all for that. I hope we all play well.

"But for me experience helps. I know this course very well, and that's a big key to me. But I don't want to use the word loosely. Whatever the other guys do is their own deal. I like to watch people play. I've always kept an eye on what everyone is doing.

"But tomorrow I'm going to be playing this course as best I can."

And maybe that will be good enough for a storybook ending.