Na in no rush, will chase PLAYERS at his own pace

May 12, 2012
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Na feels your pain. He knows that you're frustrated, angry, screaming at the TV, pulling your hair out with each of his littles waggles and half-waggles and deliberate whiffs over the ball. He's well aware of what the guys on TV are saying, what the Twitter world is writing, what golf fans are thinking, why the gallery is groaning.

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Just swing! For the love of golf, please swing!

Na wishes it was that easy. But it's not. Not for him, anyway. Professional golf is his career, his business, his life, and he won't swing until he's ready to hit the best shot that he can. If he plays faster, he doesn't play at his best. So really, there's only one thing he can say to all of you, and he's being totally honest about this.

"As ugly as it is and as painful as it is," Na said, "believe me, it's really tough for me. I'm trying."

The fascination with Na's pre-shot routine reached its apex during Saturday's third round of THE PLAYERS Championship. It started with his opening tee shot, when he waggled a few times, swung completely over the ball, then stepped away while the guys in the NBC booth began what would eventually be four-plus hours of dissection of the topic. At one point, Johnny Miller said, "I feel bad for him. I mean really, it is embarrassing to him."

The conversation extended long into the night on Golf Channel. Said Brandel Chamblee: "We hear guys talking about needing swing coaches, sports psychologists, fitness instructors or changing managers. He needs an exorcist. I half expect winged bulls to fly out of his head when he is standing over a shot. I'm not sure if Sigmund Freud were alive he could figure this one out."

It got worse. Charles Barkley, possessor of arguably the most agonizing-looking swing by any golf-playing athlete, sent a text to Roger Maltbie late Saturday night: "Kevin Na is my hero. Welcome to my world."

Harsh, indeed, but Na can deal with it. After all, he's his own worst critic. "Pull the trigger," he kept muttering to himself Saturday,voicing what everybody else was thinking.

The fact that he produced a bogey-free 68 and eventually climbed atop the leaderboard heading into Sunday's final round at TPC Sawgrass made things even more intriguing. How can a player with such seemingly mental barriers to hitting a shot be leading the PGA TOUR's signature event? And at a course that values focus and intensity as much as shotmaking?

It was an incredible afternoon of watching a player fighting himself while continuing to produce championship-caliber golf. You may be frustrated with Na before he swings, but you've got to admire what he's doing once he puts everything in motion.

"I don't know how he is doing it, I'll be honest," Maltbie said on the Golf Channel. "It is amazing."

Added Chamblee: "The fact is he hits marvelous shots. It's almost like all of the angst is unjustified."

The weird part in all this? It's nothing new. In fact, Na had been known more for his deliberate play on the greens than his waggles on the tee. But a little more than a year ago, at the Masters, he began working with swing coach Dale Lynch to change his setup, more forward, higher backswing. It was totally different ... and totally uncomfortable.

So to help alleviate that feeling, Na began his waggle routine. "A little waggle, half waggle, little waggle, half waggle and boom," he explained. That's what it's supposed to be.

But it doesn't always work like that. And when it doesn't, Na says he must waggle in pairs. Four waggles becomes six. Six waggles becomes eight. At one point, he apologized to playing partner Zach Johnson. But he can't help it. His is a beautiful mind.

"There's a lot going on in my head," he laughed.

And it's not limited just to his rounds at PGA TOUR events. He does it during practice rounds. He does it on the range. Those who know him just laugh. Those who don't give him weird looks. His friend and fellow TOUR pro Sung Kang tells him, "Bro, I don't know how you do it."

Want Na to play faster? He tried it when he found trouble at the ninth hole during the first round of the Valero Texas Open last year. He ended up taking a 16 while trying to chop out of the woods. "When I'm in the trees, I hit it faster," he said. "I don't want to play from the trees."

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On Saturday, Na's deliberate approach caused his twosome to go on the clock on the back nine. At the 16th hole, Na received a bad time. But he appealed the ruling, arguing that his caddie Kenny Harms, created a shadow that forced Na to back off his tee shot.

Did he win the appeal?

"No," Na said. But neither did he suffer a second bad time, which would've resulted in a one-stroke penalty.

Plus, there's obviously a method to his madness. He is the tournament leader, after all. He must be doing something right. As Graeme McDowell tweeted, "If you removed all Kevin Na's idiosyncrasies before his takeaway, his action is actually pretty pure."

Another weird part in all this? With all his waggles on the tee box and in the fairways, he's actually playing faster now on the greens. Sure, he still has to putt with a line anywhere outside two feet, but he's made a concerted effort to speed up his routine. It certainly hasn't hurt him.

After three rounds at TPC Sawgrass, Na ranks first in the field in Strokes Gained-Putting the TOUR's primary putting statistic. He's gained nine strokes on the field on the greens; no player this week has been better at figuring out the pure but brown-tinted greens.

The last two PLAYERS champions (Tim Clark and K.J. Choi) have ranked either first or second in that category, which bodes well for Na's chances to win his second career TOUR event.

But until he seals the deal and lifts the Waterford crystal trophy late Sunday afternoon, the focus on Na will be as much about his waggles as it is about his actual swing.

Matt Kuchar, one stroke behind, will be his playing competitor for the final round. Na couldn't have asked for a better pro to spend 18 pressure-packed holes with, Kuchar being among the nicest, most easy-going guys on TOUR.

But even he knows the potential for distractions. When quizzed about Na's slow play, Kuchar replied: "I hope that doesn't cause any problems. I don't foresee it."

Maybe not, Matty, but where there's a waggle, there's a way. As Na said with a self-deprecating grin as he looks ahead to what could be the biggest day of his career, "Hopefully we'll get that ... round in."