LOS ANGELES – With rain beginning to fall again Saturday at Riviera Country Club, Annie Na tucked her cell phone under her arm and scrambled for cover on the back steps of the clubhouse.
She knew a very important call from halfway around the world would be coming any moment.
With the third round of the Northern Trust Open now complete, she knew “Papa Na” would be calling.
That’s what they call Annie’s husband, Yong Na, father to PGA Tour pro Kevin Na.
Papa Na’s sick, he’s fighting leukemia, and even though he had to wake before sunrise back in Seoul, South Korea, to follow Kevin’s progress, Annie knew her husband was glued to his computer the entire round.
With Kevin posting a 4-under-par 67, Annie knew Papa Na would be thrilled. Kevin will go off Sunday in the final pairing in a bid to win his first PGA Tour event. He’s just one shot behind the leader, Aaron Baddeley. They’ll both be paired with Fred Couples, who at 51 will be the overwhelming favorite among fans wanting to see “Freddie” win this event for the third time.
While this might be Couples’ venue, a course he loves, it’s practically Na’s backyard and just as special to him. Kevin was born in South Korea, but his family moved here when he was 8. He grew up in nearby Rancho Cucamonga. When he was 11 years old, Papa Na brought Kevin to Riviera Country Club, where Kevin got to watch his first PGA Tour event. Kevin followed Couples that week, and he even got an autographed photo of Corey Pavin, the winner that Sunday in 1995. Kevin says he’s still got the photo.
Annie knows all of this makes Papa Na burn to be here.
“Papa Na will call wanting to know how Kevin’s feeling, how he’s looking, how he’s sleeping,” Annie said. “He can see Kevin’s shots on the computer, but he can only see the lines with Shot Link. He’ll want to know about certain shots.”
And as Annie’s saying this, her cell phone begins humming.
“Yes, this is Papa Na now,” Annie said.
There was a lively exchange in Korean, Annie knowing exactly what Papa Na wanted, with Annie promising to call again later with more news.
“This is very therapeutic for Papa Na,” Annie says.
And inspiring for Kevin Na.
“I would really like to send the trophy back over to him,” Kevin said after his round.
Papa Na is 59 – a retired businessman. His oldest son, Austin, Kevin’s only sibling, is a professor in sports management at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. Austin's watching over Papa Na. Annie’s heading back over again next week.
“My father was diagnosed with leukemia at the end of last year when we were in Korea,” Kevin said. “He met a great doctor there who’s really helping him out.
“When we first found out, it was really hard. I want to stay positive, and I just . . . I just try to think of him, that he’s healthy. They don’t really know what’s going to happen, because the next year is very important for him. He needs to take medication exactly on the dot, exactly when he needs to. And if that works out, and if he gets better, it might extend his life. But who knows? I don’t really want to go further than that.”
Kevin, 27, had a wild run up the leaderboard Saturday in a round of seven birdies and three bogeys. He was a gifted junior who turned pro at 17. In seven full seasons on the PGA Tour, he’s steadily become a factor with an improving game. He can be an erratic driver, but he’s got a terrific short game and is a good iron player. He made the Tour Championship the last two seasons and has three times finished runner-up in PGA Tour events.
“Kevin’s got unbelievable imagination around the greens,” said Kenny Harms, Na’s caddie. “And he’s an unbelievable putter.”
Harms was with Hale Irwin for eight years before picking up Na’s bag for the first time at the Canadian Open in 2008. He was Hubert Green’s caddie before that.
“At the Canadian Open, I told Kevin’s father, `Your son has the type of game that wins majors,’” said Harms, who became Na’s full-time caddie in ’09. “He tends to play better on the tougher courses.”
Na’s got a reputation as one of the most intense players on tour. That’s rubbed some players the wrong way and not always served him well. In the final round of the Tour Championship last year, Na got some bad publicity for losing his temper at the 18th tee. After a bad shot, he angrily slammed his driver into the turf, taking a small chunk out of the tee box.
'I'll be honest, yeah, the behavior on 18 wasn't good,” Paul Casey, who was paired with Na and had a chance to win, said at the time. “I don't really care. I think it's bad for the game.'
Like it or not, Na’s intensity is part of the chemistry fueling his rise in the ranks. He’d love to take his largest step yet with a win Sunday.
“Kevin has so much potential,” Harms said. “It’s just a matter of time and experience for him.”
Na hopes his time comes Sunday at Riviera.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell