Mostly yip-free, Na ready for another shot at Players

By Rex HoggardMay 8, 2015, 8:29 pm

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.

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“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.

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Rahm, with blinders on, within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

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Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.

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Rahm focusing on play, not shot at No. 1

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 9:06 pm

SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm’s meteoric rise in the world rankings could end with him reaching No. 1 with a win this week at Torrey Pines.

After winning last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his fourth title in 51 weeks, Rahm has closed the gap on Dustin Johnson – less than 1.5 average points separates them.

With Johnson not playing this week, the 23-year-old Spaniard has a chance to reach the top spot for the first time, but only if he defends his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.

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“Beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task. It’s no easy task,” he said Tuesday. “We still have four days of golf ahead and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll try to focus more on what’s going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win.

“I’ll try my best, that’s for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

Rahm has already become the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 2 in the world, behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 

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Rahm: Playoff wasn't friendly, just 'nervous'

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:53 pm

SAN DIEGO – Too chummy? Jon Rahm says he and Andrew Landry were just expending some nervous energy on the walk up to the fairway during the first playoff hole of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

“I wouldn’t have been that nervous if it was friendly,” Rahm said with a smile Tuesday. “I think it was something he said because we were talking going out of the first tee.

“I didn’t know Andrew – I think it was a pretty good time to get to know him. We had at least 10 minutes to ourselves. It’s not like we were supporting each other, right? We were both in it together, we were both nervous together, and I felt like talking about it might have eased the tension out of both of us.”

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On Sunday, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange saw the exchange on TV and tweeted: “Walking off the tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me? Talking at all?”

Strange followed up by saying that, in a head-to-head situation, the last thing he’d want to do was make his opponent comfortable. When his comments went viral, Strange tweeted at Rahm, who won after four holes: “Hopefully no offense taken on my comment yesterday. You guys are terrific. I’m a huge fan of all players today. Made an adverse comment on U guys talking during playoff. Not for me. A fan.”

Not surprisingly, the gregarious Rahm saw things differently.

“We only talked going out of the first tee up until the fairway,” he said. “Besides that, all we said was, ‘Good shot, good putt, see you on the next tee.’ That’s what it was reduced to. We didn’t say much.” 

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Tiger grouped with Reed, Hoffman at Torrey Pines

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:35 pm

SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods will make his 2018 debut alongside Patrick Reed and Charley Hoffman.

The threesome will go off Torrey Pines’ South Course at 1:40 p.m. ET Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open. They begin at 12:30 p.m. Friday on the North Course.

Woods is an eight-time winner at Torrey Pines, including the 2008 U.S. Open, but he hasn’t broken 70 in his last seven rounds on either course. Last year, he shot rounds of 76-72 to miss the cut.

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Reed, who has grown close to Woods after being in his pod during the past two international team competitions, is coming off a missed cut last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Hoffman, a San Diego native, has only two top-10s in 20 career starts at Torrey.

Other featured groups for the first two rounds include:

• Jon Rahm, Jason Day and Brandt Snedeker: 1:30 p.m. Thursday off South 1, 12:20 p.m. Friday off North 10

• Rickie Fowler, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele: 12:30 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:30 p.m. Friday off South 1

• Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama: 12:40 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:40 p.m. Friday off South 1