There are several factors out of a professional golfer’s control in a tournament. They can’t do much to impact the weather, course conditions or the performances of their competitors. Kevin Na had another variable to add to the list of things that were out of his control in the final round of The Players Championship. Na didn’t have total control of himself.
Na’s preshot routine, a collection of half-waggles and full waggles that he performs in pairs before he is able to hit a shot, took an inordinate amount of time on many occasions on Sunday. Many fans snickered, some mocked him, others turned away – but everyone in the gallery felt uncomfortable during his pre-shot routine – especially him.
Imagine Na’s attempt to sleep before the final round. Yes, he’d won a PGA Tour Fall Series event last year, but this was new territory for the 28-year-old. He was in a position to win the world’s fifth biggest golf tournament, and for Christ’s sake, he couldn’t take the club back.
Na predictably stumbled in the final round, finishing in a tie for seventh place, five shots off the lead. His final-round 76 wasn’t a total collapse though – he was in contention until the 13th hole, when he pulled his iron shot in the water to the left of the green on the difficult par 3.
Na had to be exhausted when he finished his 72nd hole at Pete Dye’s masterpiece. For four days, he battled an impossible golf course, the best players in the world and also what proved to be the toughest test, the first six inches of his backswing.
Na said that he was unable to take his club back at the desired time because of a recent swing change. At address, he sets up with more weight on his left side, which feels uncomfortable to him. This explanation makes sense, but based on what I saw on Sunday, I don’t know if that’s the whole story
Na was able to take the club back with little problem on the range at TPC Sawgrass, at least at first. As the warm-up progressed, he seemed to struggle more with the glitch in his takeaway, requiring four waggles instead of the usual two. With longer clubs, he began taking even more waggles – six, then eight, then he’d step back restart.
Na moved through his shots fairly quickly on Nos. 1 through3, playing championship-caliber golf. He extended his lead on those holes over Kuchar by two strokes, and looked as though he was winning the battle against himself in the final round. But when Na reached the tee on No. 5, he began to lose the battle.
Normally, Tour players are grunting at the ball after they hit their tee shots. But Kevin Na was grunting before his ball left the tee. The frustration was evident in his scowled face. Even after backing off twice and several waggles, Na couldn’t start his backswing.
That’s why Na’s tee shot on No. 5 was so impressive. He hit a perfect drive, splitting the bunkers that protect the angled fairway. But a golfer can only grind for so long before it starts to take a toll on them. After missing the green with a hybrid, Na flubbed his chip and made bogey. Then he three-putted No. 6 for back-to-back bogeys. His energy reserves appeared to be depleting.
Na’s inability to pull the trigger wasn’t the only thing that was odd about his pre-shot routine. On Nos. 5 and 6, he backed off the ball before he hit his putts. I doubt his new setup over his full shots had anything to do with that.
“It is what it is,” Na said after the round. “I do need to work on what I need to. I do need to work on my pre-shot routine. I do need to play faster. But the average golfer has no clue how much pressure we’re playing under and how tough it is and how much of a fight for it is mentally. I honestly think with all that going on, I did pretty well fighting.”
Credit should be given to Na for putting up one heck of a fight. On one of golf’s biggest stages, he fought his demons bravely. But it was clear that Na’s problems weren’t entirely limited to a takeaway problem. His entire game and demeanor is full of quirks.
Before Na hit a driver in the final round, he first always stretched his right triceps muscles over his head. Also, like many LPGA Tour players, before he hit his shot he required the ok from his caddie that his alignment was correct, after which his caddie would move off to the side.
On No. 14, Na meticulously tightened his shoelaces, making sure they were perfectly straight before he proceeded with his putting routine — ritualistic, definitely – obsessive compulsive, maybe.
When it was clear that Na had eliminated himself from contention, he began to play faster. He also started to play a little better. But the damage had been done, and the $1.7 million prize was going to belong to someone other than him.
Na was previously known best for being the player that made a 16 at the Texas Open. Now, he will be known as the player that couldn’t pull the trigger at TPC Sawgrass. I hope he overcomes the hiccups that caused him so much grief this week at The Players, because Na has serious game. He hits the ball extremely straight, has a great touch around the greens and is a deft putter.
Na played his heart out this week. It will be a battle for him to get out of his own way, but when he figures it out, he will find himself on top of the leaderboard many times on Saturday night at big tournaments. And in time, he will stay there on Sunday.
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