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.

The Players Championship: Articles, videos and photos

“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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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.