PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Only those who have emerged from that dark place can understand.
“I had the yips, that’s what it was,” Kevin Na said on Friday at TPC Sawgrass.
It’s one thing to accept the slings and arrows of the affliction that must not be named (yips), but it’s an entirely different level of intensity to own it the way Na did following a second-round 69 at The Players.
Forget what you may think you know about Na, the 31-year-old has no interest in false modesty or self-indulgence. Following another solid round on the Stadium Course he readied himself for a trip down memory lane most, if not all, would be reluctant to take.
In 2012, Na began Sunday’s final turn at The Players alone atop the leaderboard, just as he is now, and something of a marked man because of a languid pre-shot routine that sparked golf’s version of an unruly mob.
After making a bogey at the fifth hole, Na was waiting on the sixth tee box when the onslaught began.
“Some guy in the crowd yelled, ‘You better not start choking, I’ve got a $1,000 on you,’” remembered Kenny Harms, Na’s caddie. “And then the heckling started and didn’t stop.”
Fans screamed at Na from across the lake while he waited on the ninth tee box, “Pull the trigger, pull the trigger.” Crowds began counting as he settled in over shots, frozen by indecision and fear.
The seeds of doubt had already been firmly planted on the eve of the final round when he and Harms returned to their rented house after dinner and settled in to watch some television.
“I turned on the TV and it was on Golf Channel,” Harms said. “Kevin came over and I said, ‘You’re not watching this.’ We went back and forth and I went to my room. I didn’t want to watch it because I knew what was going to happen. It was going to be three hours of absolute, constant abuse.
“When you listen to that for three hours, some of it is going to sink in.”
In reality, it was more like eight hours of abuse counting Sunday’s final round at the ’12 Players, where he closed with a 76 and tied for seventh.
Three years removed from that shocking Sunday, Na can now smile about the incident but it took some time. He arrived at his next Tour start in 2012 with a completely reworked pre-shot routine and a determination to break out of his mental malaise.
He’s hardly the first player to face the gripping debilitation of the yips, but he was certainly one of the few who had to do it while in contention at one of the game’s most important events.
“A lot of the guys when you have that they fall off the planet,” Na said. “They play poorly and nobody really sees and hears about it. The weird thing was I was playing some of my best golf and I couldn’t take the club back, and the whole world saw me do it.”
Although he still holds the distinction of being one the Tour’s slower players – his group was put on the clock on Friday, although Harms said it wasn’t Na who was holding them up – the demons he battled in 2012 have slowly been pushed down into a psyche that goes much deeper than the average Tour player’s.
That’s not to say Na is cured.
“I still have 5 percent left in me,” he smiled.
Na explained that there were a host of technical issues that led to his psychological paralysis – a new swing theory, a dramatically shifted balance point and a body that was reluctant to make the transition.
The mechanics aside, however, the fix has had less to do with swing theory than it does psychology.
“We try to feel the shot from the target in,” Na said. “Like, if you’re in the trees and you see a hole, you see an opening and you’re trying to feel that opening and you hit the shot, instead of trying to manufacture something here [pointing to the ground].”
There are still moments of indecision, moments when the body is willing but the mind refuses repeated calls to action.
Along with his inability to “pull the trigger,” Na also introduced the surreal habit of addressing his ball, taking the club back but at the last second swinging over top of the golf ball. It’s a move that lingers.
“Still happens about once a week,” said Na in his signature matter-of-fact style. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I do it over the weekend [at TPC Sawgrass].”
What will be different this time will be Na’s outlook. The player who was frozen with fear in 2012 has evolved into a realist determined to enjoy himself regardless of the stakes.
The same guy who was consumed by the moment three years ago is now content to savor it.
“I’m just going to go out there and try to enjoy what’s going on right now, which I have been the first two days," he said. “If I keep enjoying myself, the good results are going to come.”
What else would one expect from a player who stared down the yips on one of golf’s brightest stages.