PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – After three consecutive birdies to begin the back nine, Kevin Na felt the high of holding the lead alone in The Players Championship. Little did he know what he would need to do to hold on to just a share of it.
Na shot 3-under 69 in the second round to share the halfway lead at 8 under with Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar, but had a roller-coaster ride to the finish.
On the tee at the par-3 13th, Na flared his tee shot short and right of a small greenside bunker, then discovered his ball had disappeared in the Bermuda rough.
'I was hoping I was in the bunker,' he said. 'If you're in the bunker you can put some spin on it.'
After a good effort to pitch his ball to 15 feet beyond the cup, Na made bogey to immediately lose the solo lead he had just gained.
Na caught a good break at the 14th, when his tee shot kicked left off of a mound into a decent sidehill stance in the rough. The Vegas native came up short, however, landing in the sand he had hoped to find on the previous hole. While friend Scott Piercy had an adventure of his own in making a crushing double bogey, Na calmly landed his explosion to three feet for an easy par.
Na went to the beach again at 15, finding a fairway bunker to the right. This time, he came up twice as short as his approach to the last hole, but on grass. Hitting a low, spin-heavy pitch, Na left 9 feet for par. He missed on the right side. He had lost the lead in three holes.
Then he disappeared. While Piercy and his other playing partner George McNeill hit their tee shots to the par-5 16th, Na consulted with a rules official asking if the group was playing at a proper pace. Given the nod that they were, Na flirted with the woods on the left with his tee shot. Walking at a pace that was practically sprinting for the admittedly slow Na, he arrived at his ball thinking of an eagle.
'I know I was aimed a little left and pushed it,' he explained, 'but my subconscious was thinking pin, maybe three.'
The ball went in the drink short and right of his target. Na salvaged par, completing the up-and-down he could not on 15.
As Na made the short stroll to the par-3 17th, Na passed a photographer shooting pictures of The Players trophy sitting perilously on the bulkhead of the water hazard. He must not have noticed the symbolic scene, however, as he confidently stuck his tee shot to 7 feet. After studying the putt with caddie Kenny Harms from all sides, Na walked in his birdie to reclaim a share of the lead.
With one final mine to avoid at the last, Na struggled to get off the tee. He lined up his tee shot to the daunting 18th, but pulled back, yelling at himself, 'Pull the trigger!' He calmed down, striping his tee shot into perfect position. He repeated the brilliance with his approach to 11 feet, but could not earn a rewarding two-three finish.
Na walked off with a share of the lead, having just executed exactly what he has to do to win this weekend.
'The guys that's going to find the short grass,' he said, 'is going to be the winner.'