Na fails to clock field in final round, but he'll figure it out soon

May 13, 2012

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLA. -- It is highly improbable, despite the similarities in time consumed, that Kevin Na's pre-shot routine will challenge the Kentucky Derby's appellation as the most exciting two minutes in sports. However, if we can just be patient, he promises that awkward seance over the ball shall be modified.

"I do need to play faster and I will," Na said Sunday after he posted 76 at the Stadium Course, where Matt Kuchar lapped him and beat him along with everybody else to capture THE PLAYERS Championship. Na succumbed not only to the championship's prevailing curse -- he became yet another third-round leader to implode -- but the pressure of keeping pace in the final twosome after being put on the clock Saturday seemed to affect Na's rhythm, such as it is.

Slow play thus was replaced by poor play, not an ideal tradeoff. For 54 holes, we were wondering whether Na is acutely deliberate off the course, too. How long does it take him to shave? Change a tire? Mow his lawn? Could be worse, though. He could be the guy who delivers your pizza, or a firefighter, or, perish the thought, an obstetrician. By the time he's finished and you go home from the hospital, your child is asking for the car keys.

Then came Sunday, and nothing worked for Na. Not his histrionics, not his version of a hurry-up drill, and not his swing when it finally materialized. After a birdie on No. 2, at which point Na's lead over the field had grown from one to three strokes, he bogeyed four of five holes on the front nine. Compounding Na's heavy baggage were a few hecklers who implored him to pull the trigger even before he pulled a club. Not fair, said Na, adding that he deserved it.

What Na probably doesn't want to hear is the proposition that thousands of spectators among a smattering of impolite deep throats identified with him. He talks to the ball, converses with himself, even apologizes to playing companions. When flogging away at this confounding game, haven't we all uttered the refrain, "Sorry, partner"? How many times have we squeezed the grip and steered it with a prayer? And when Na begged in vain for a five-footer to drop for par on No. 6 -- minutes after a bogey on No. 5, his first since Friday -- it was as though our knees knocked along with his.

A huge difference, of course, is that Na is no mope who just showed up on the PGA TOUR. Despite his Sunday woes, he finished in a tie for seventh. That's his fifth top 10 this season, as many as the famously consistent Kuchar. Moreover, Na does not fake amnesia about his trials and tribulations. At the Valero Texas Open, where he took 16 whacks on one hole last year, he returned with a chainsaw this year to prune troublesome shrubbery. Throughout the week here, Na issued repeated guilty pleas to malingering above the ball.

"I'm trying," Na said again after Sunday's disappointment. "And now, I'm going to try to eliminate my waggle, the whole waggle. I've been making changes to my swing over a year or so, and now I have to change this. The average golfer has no idea how tough it is mentally, but my main thought today was to move faster and not hold up Matt. Did I overdo it? Probably. But I hung in there, I appreciate the people who were behind me, and I take a lot of positives out of this, despite not winning."

Since the championship moved from March to May, holding a 54-hole lead at THE PLAYERS is tantamount to holding a live grenade. In 2007, Sean O'Hair faltered to 74 and Phil Mickelson won; in 2008, Paul Goydos' 74 paved the way for Sergio Garcia; in 2009, Alex Cejka ballooned to 79 and Henrik Stenson triumphed; in 2010, Lee Westwood finished with 74 and Tim Clark the trophy; and last year, when Graeme McDowell skied to 79, K.J. Choi took over.

Why is Sunday such a scramble here, year after year? Theories are plentiful, including the one advanced earlier this week by Tiger Woods, who noted that the Stadium's angles tend to bring everybody together and thus encourage volatility. That is, there are certain spots to hit it out here, regardless of what club you're using to try reaching them. One spot not to visit is right of the fifth green, but Na's approach landed there Sunday, in a depression, barely visible beneath thick rough. He fluffed the chip. At No. 12, his tee ball settled behind tall stalks, just enough to force a blind shot to the green. Did we mention he also took a rip from a cart path?

"It is what it is," said Na. "I played beautifully for three days and today, I should have been more conservative when things went bad. When I got behind a little bit, I think I played aggressive, which made it worse."

Kuchar played Saturday with Harris English, who shot 79, and averted any collateral damage. On the back nine Sunday, Kuchar and Na were out of position for a spell, but smiling Matt eased to his most prestigious PGA TOUR victory while extending get-well wishes.

"Kevin is a great guy in the locker room, nice to everybody, but he's fighting some demons," said Kuchar. He's also been there because every golfer has been there. He won his first professional tournament in 2002. He won his next tournament in 2009. During his seven-year itch, Kuchar tried everything to fix what was broken, including the Nationwide Tour. Now, he's got more money than Greece.

"I'm happy for Matt," concluded Na. "He played well. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. And what I'm going to try to do, to play faster, to make things simpler in my swing, it won't be easy."

Just give Kevin Na some time. He'll be back, quicker than ever.

Bob Verdi is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.