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Na, not yet

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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.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

You can follow Zak on Twitter @ZakKoz and GolfWRX on Twitter @GolfWRX

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Zak is the Editor-in-Chief of GolfWRX.com. He's been a part of the company since 2011, when he was hired to lead GolfWRX's Editorial Department. Zak developed GolfWRX's Featured Writer Program, which supports aspiring writers and golf industry professionals. He played college golf at the University of Richmond (Go Spiders!) and still likes to compete in tournaments. You can follow Zak on Twitter @ZakKoz, where he's happy to discuss his game and all the cool stuff that's part of his job.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Brian Cass

    May 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    He says this is a weight distribution issue for his full swing….um…he was doing this with his putter as well as I recall. This has more to do with negative thoughts than it does with balance in my opinion.

  2. Feisty

    May 14, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    I feel for the guy because he is so aware of his issues. I hope they can be fixed, because part of me wonders if he’s just obsessive compulsive and he can’t fix the little twitches. It’s not the end of the world, but I think the hiccups will keep him from making it through a full tournament without cracking. He seems like a good guy, too.

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“I Love You, Tiger!” At Big Cedar lodge, an outpouring of affection for Tiger Woods

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What a difference a year makes.

About one year ago, Tiger Woods was in Branson, Missouri at Big Cedar Lodge to announce that he was designing a golf course there; Payne’s Valley, his first public course. That day was attended by hundreds of national and local media, the Lieutenant Governor of Missouri and Johnny Morris, Bass Pro Shops owner and the visionary behind the amazing golf complex that has been established at Big Cedar Lodge.

That day, Woods had not played competitive golf for awhile, and he was recovering from multiple surgeries. Woods took a couple of ceremonial swings, the last of which clearly left him in physical distress. Days later, he was in surgery again and his playing career looked to be all but over. The situation became worse when Woods was arrested for driving under the influence, found with multiple substances in his system. It seemed as though the sad mug shots from that arrest might be as prominent in his legacy as the smiles and fist-pumps that accompanied his 79 wins and 14 major championships.

Fast forward to yesterday, where Woods was back in Missouri to do a Junior Clinic at Big Cedar. An estimated crowd of over 7,000 kids and parents showed up on a school day to catch a glimpse of Woods. The atmosphere was carnival-like, with sky divers, stunt planes making flyovers and rock music blaring from giant speakers. When Woods finally arrived, the reaction was electric. Mothers and their kids were chanting. “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” at the top of their lungs. Photographers battled soccer moms for position to get a picture of his swing. Some of the kids were as young as 6-years-old, which means that they had probably not seen Woods hit a meaningful shot in their life. At one point, when Woods was hitting shots and explaining how to execute them, a woman shouted, “I love you, Tiger!” Not to be out done, a woman on the other side of the crowd, who was their with her husband and kids, shouted “I love you more, Tiger!” Maybe the only people with more affection for Woods would be the people in the golf business. A senior marketing official in the golf industry leaned over at one point in the event and said, “God, we could use just one more from him.”

Woods swing looks completely rehabilitated. He was hitting shots of every shape and trajectory on-demand, and the driver was sending balls well past the end of the makeshift driving range set up for the event. But even more remarkable was the evidence of the recovery of his reputation. Surely there are still women out there that revile Woods for the revelations of infidelity, and no doubt there are those that still reject Woods for his legal and personal struggles. But none of them were in Missouri yesterday. Mothers and children shrieking his name confirmed what we already knew: Tiger Woods is the single most compelling person in American sports, and he belongs to golf.

Unlike a year ago, Woods is swinging well, and seems as healthy and happy as he as ever been as a pro. Add to that the unprecedented outpouring of love from crowds that once produced a combination of awe and respect, but never love. Fowler, McIlroy, Spieth and the rest may get their share of wins and Tweets, but if the game is to really grow it will be on the broad, fragile back of Tiger Woods. It’s amazing to think what can happen in one short year.

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Opinion & Analysis

12 reasons serious golfers don’t realize their potential

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What stops serious golfers from realizing their potential? If you are an amateur who wants to get better, a young player trying to achieve more, or a young professional with big dreams, this article is for you.

I’ve made a career out of helping athletes maximize their abilities, golfers in particular. And the things I see young playing professionals doing prior to our work together is often what is holding them back. The reality is that most young players, no matter what their level, have three key problems:

  1. They’re distracted by what’s not important
  2. They have no detailed structure and plan to reach the targets they determine are important to them
  3. They have no formal process to develop mindset and attitude

In the list below, I share what I see working with these young players and some common blind spots.

1. No real plan and steps to achieve targets

Most players do not know how to create a long-term and short-term plan that outlines all steps needed to reach targets. Players should have yearly plans with targets, steps and actions and weekly plans to organize/schedule their time and prioritize key needs.

2. Not focused enough on the object of the game

This goes hand in hand with No. 1. Surprisingly, players seem to forget that the object of the game is get the ball in the hole in the least amount of strokes. Trophies and checks are not issued for the best swing, the best putting stroke or most balls hit.

3. Not enough pressure in practice

Most young players have loose practice. The intensity of feelings between the practice tee and the course are too different. Focus and intensity must be a part of all practice. Add competition and outcomes to sessions so some urgency is created.

4. Too much practice time on full swing

The data is clear — most shots in golf happen from 100 yards and in from the green. If the majority of practice time is not spent on these shorter shots, practice time is wasted.

5. An obsession with the look of the swing

Players are not generally prepared to own their own swings and embrace the differences that make them unique. Obsessing over swing mechanics is a major distraction for many players. Many players convince themselves that if it doesn’t look “good” on their iPhone, their swing won’t get results.

6. No structure with the driver

Since scoring is the main goal, a consistent, reliable shape to each shot is important. My experience has been that if players are trying to go both ways with the driver, that is a sure-fire way to elevate numbers on the card. Pick a shape and eliminate one side of the course. Predictability from the tee increases a player’s confidence to put the ball in the fairway more often, creating more opportunities to score.

7. Expectation that they will hit the ball well everyday

Many players have the unreasonable expectation that they will hit lots of fairways and greens every time they play. This expectation leads to constant disappointment in their game. Knowing that the leading professionals in the game average about 60.6 percent driving accuracy and 11.8 greens in regulation per round should be a good benchmark for the expectations of all players.

8. Trying to be too robotic and precise in putting

Some players get so caught up in the mechanics of putting that their approach becomes too robotic. They become obsessed with precision and being perfect. Feel, flow and instinct have to be a central part of putting. This can get lost in an overly robotic mindset trying to be too precise and perfect.

9. No process for assessment and reflection

Players do not have a formal process for assessing practice or rounds and reflecting on the experience. The right lessons are not consistently taken away to ensure step-by-step improvement. Knowing how to assess practice, play and ask the right questions is key to development.

10. Getting in their own way

The voice inside of most young players’ heads is not helpful for their performance. It’s often a negative, demanding voice that insists on perfection. This voice leads to hesitation, frustration and anger. The voice must be shaped (with practice) into the right “emotional caddie” to support efforts and promote excellence over perfection.

11. A focus on the negative before the positive

A default to the mistakes/flaws in the round before looking at the highlights and what worked. When asked about their round, most players highlight three-putts, penalty shots and any errors before anything else. Emphasis should always be on what went well first. Refection on what needs improvement is second.

12. The blame game

Young players love excuses. Course conditions, weather, coaching and equipment are a few of the areas that are often targets, deflecting responsibility away from the player. Many players do not take full responsibility for their own game and/or careers.

I hope this provides some insights on roadblocks that could get in your way on the path to reaching your targets in the game. Whether it’s lowering your handicap, winning a junior tournament, working toward the PGA Tour — or just general improvement — considering these observations might help you shorten the road to get there.

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