For a good part of his career, Kevin Na was easy to dislike, simply based on his plodding nature on the course. Not only did he play slow, but he had numerous idiosyncrasies that were maddening.
So frustrated by Na’s on-course issues at one 2014 tournament, caddie Steve Williams, then working for Adam Scott, confronted Na afterward in the scoring area saying, “I never want to see you play again,” Na told Golf.com.
Among his many issues, Na had difficulty taking the club back, a problem that played out in front of the golf world at the 2012 Players Championship, where Na somehow got into contention, allowing millions on television to witness his struggles.
If Na felt awkward during his backswing, he would purposely swing over the ball — not deemed a stroke because he didn’t intend to hit it. Then he might back off and go through his entire routine again, causing gasps among spectators and internal strife that made it worse.
“After I get done, I’m pretty tired because not only am I grinding for the golf tournament, but I’m fighting within myself in my mind and trying to play a round of golf without backing off, without all this extra stuff going on,” Na said then.
“And trust me … I get ripped. A lot. I know … TV, Twitter and fans are tired of me backing off. I understand people being frustrated with me backing off, but all I can tell you guys is, honestly, I’m trying. And it’s hard for me, too. Just bear with me.”
And that was a glimpse of an endearing quality about Na that makes his victory on Sunday at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open all the more special. Not only was it his fourth PGA Tour victory, in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, and third in 30 tournaments, but he did it by overcoming the various dark thoughts that could have easily overwhelmed him on the back nine.
Na was seemingly cruising to victory when, out of nowhere, he triple-bogeyed the 10th hole. Suddenly his four-shot lead was down to one. He would even fall a shot behind Patrick Cantlay, who made his own big mistake on the 17th hole — finding water — while Na was having to make a 17-foot putt to save par and pull even heading to the last hole.
Na then won on the second hole of sudden death, setting a PGA Tour record in the Shotlink era for feet of putts made in a tournament — 558 feet, 11 inches.
Na, 36, has been a pro for nearly 20 years, deciding to play for pay at age 17. It has been a wild journey in which he has made a 16 on a par-4 hole at the Texas Open — and returned to cut down trees in a wooded area on the hole to poke fun at himself.
Knowing he was a slow player, Na sped up the rest of his routine and practically sprinted to his golf ball. He then took to chasing after a putt he knocked into the hole — he did so on a 9-footer on Sunday in the playoff — even drawing laughs from Tiger Woods earlier this year at the Players Championship when he tried to mimic the move.
For years, Na threw victory after victory away. Now, he appears to be figuring it out while overcoming numerous demons along the way.
“I’m catching up on my wins,” he said. “Three seasons in a row, win No. 4 here, so let’s keep going.”
The harsh penalty
Earlier in the weekend, Na made different headlines when he came to the defense of Bio Kim, the Korean golfer who was suspended for three years by the Korean Tour for an obscene gesture he made toward a spectator during the final round of a tournament he went on to win Sept. 29.
Kim was distracted by a cell phone camera going off in his backswing, and his tee shot traveled just 100 yards. Frustrated, he flipped off the fan and then slammed his club to the turf in anger.
Afterward, the Korean Tour suspended him for three years and fined him — penalties considered harsh.
“Yes, what he did was 100 percent wrong,” said Na, who is friends with Kim. “But a three-year suspension is not what he deserves.”
Na has tried to help by discussing the matter with various officials in the game and going public with his thoughts on the matter.
For Kim, the options are limited. He said last week he would not appeal the suspension. He can try elsewhere, but typically other tours honor suspensions and penalties.
For now, the PGA Tour is not commenting as it investigates the situation. Kim could attempt to Monday qualify for Korn Ferry Tour or PGA Tour events — he has competed on both tours — or seek sponsor exemptions, although only if the PGA Tour signs off.
The PGA Tour is in a tough spot, as it would never administer such a harsh penalty. Player discipline is typically not disclosed, but you could surmise a fine, perhaps a short suspension, is the most a player would get for such a violation. Maybe a rebuke from the commissioner.
But the PGA Tour also wants to respect the rules of another tour, making the matter far from simple.
The Rahm reign
John Rahm’s victory and title defense at the Spanish Open on Sunday is yet another indication of his immense talent and ability to be a force in the game. Now ranked fourth in the world, Rahm is on an impressive run in which he has been in contention nearly every week going back to the U.S. Open.
He did miss the cut at the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland, a pro-am event over three courses.
But including the U.S. Open, Rahm now has seven top-5 finishes in his past 11 worldwide starts, including at the Irish Open and in Spain. He tied for third at the U.S. Open and tied for second at the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship.
In 23 worldwide events this year, Rahm has 15 top-10 finishes including six in the top three.