PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Earlier this week PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem figured that stroke penalties for slow play weren’t necessary. After nine languid holes with Kevin Na on Saturday, your scribe would be curious what the commish thought of waterboarding for the habitually slow?
Na is slow. Slow like continental drifts. Slow like his Round 3 playing partner Zach Johnson was named an honorary starter for next year’s Masters by the time the two finished at TPC Sawgrass. OK, too much. But you get the picture.
Here’s the rub, Na is, regardless of pace, a good guy. Hard working, good sense of humor with a solid game that has produced just four bogeys in his last 45 holes on the Stadium Course and a third-round 68 that will give him a one-stroke lead over Matt Kuchar heading into the final day at the circuit’s flagship event.
It’s just that when he settles in over a tee shot he goes catatonic.
For those short on time, here’s a snapshot of Na’s routine on a few random holes. At No. 6 he took five practice swings, 24 waggles, two step-aways and one “Sorry Zach” before finally pulling the trigger.
At the seventh he re-teed three times, made four practice swings, 19 waggles and one step-away before getting to it.
You get the picture. Think Sergio Garcia at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black without the angry fans and obscene gestures.
To Na’s credit he owns his issues, admitting after his round “there’s a lot going on (in his head).”
That he is slow is not a guarded secret. In fact, as Na made his way up the seventh fairway on Saturday Tour rules official Mark Russell made a precautionary stop. “Look guys the group in front of you is on the clock so don’t get out of position,” he warned Na and Johnson.
Despite Na’s distressing pre-shot routine, or maybe because of it, he was almost perfect on a windswept day, closing with birdies at Nos. 16 and 18 to pull clear of Kuchar and within 18 holes of the greatest victory of his career.
However, good golf and speedy play seem to be mutually exclusive for Na, who was put on the clock late on the back nine and received a “bad time” on the 16th hole.
According to Tour regulations the player hitting first has 60 seconds to play his shot and Na exceeded that limit before playing his second shot at the par 5. Although he appealed the decision, saying that his caddie’s shadow prompted him to step away at the last minute, officials reviewed the video of the shot and assessed the bad time.
Two bad times in one round and a player is assessed a one-stroke penalty, which hasn’t happened on Tour in more than two decades and when it comes to slow play the Tour adheres to a strict short-term memory policy.
“He starts fresh tomorrow,” Russell said.
The same can’t be said for the TPC galleries who will endure what NBC Sport’s analyst Roger Maltbie called Na’s “episodes” on Saturday.
Although he’s never been a fast player by any measure, Na has become even more sluggish since he began working with swing coach Dale Lynch last year at the Masters, although this can hardly be laid in Lynch’s lap.
One of the circuit’s worst players with a driver in his hands, Na has improved to 15th in driving accuracy and 81st in total driving under Lynch compared to 56th and 145th, respectively, in 2010.
For a Tour type who played with fear from every tee box the added element of a dramatic swing change has led to more psychological baggage than a Kardashian.
“It stems from the fact he was such a poor driver of the golf ball,” Lynch said. “He’s very aware of it and trying very hard to remedy it but we haven’t been able to change his routine to match up with his swing.”
Lynch said Na has a similar routine while he’s practicing, just faster, and the affable Australian has seen progress in recent months with Na’s swing and his pace of play.
“He’s thinking swing thought . . . always has, and we have talked about it,” Lynch said.
To Na’s credit he’s taken the situation head on. No excuses, no longwinded explanations, just the type of brutal honesty that eludes many with the same ailment.
“I'm trying to get comfortable with my waggles. It's usually a little waggle, half waggle, little waggle, half waggle, and boom, supposed to pull the trigger. But if it doesn't work, I've got to go in pairs,” Na said. “So it'll go four; and if it doesn't work, it'll go six; and after that, just – there's a lot going on in my head.”
Unfortunately, it’s just not happening very quickly.