PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Kevin Na never stood a chance Sunday at The Players Championship.
Na had a legion of knucklehead hecklers to overcome.
With Na battling a pre-shot routine gone haywire, with all his neurotic stop-and-go waggles and fake swings, Na played with a giant bull’s-eye on his back.
Nobody faced more formidable opposition in the final round.
At the 17th island hole, a tough shot in the best of circumstances on a Sunday, Na got over his ball with a drunken yahoo bellowing.
“Pull the trigger, Na,” the heckler shouted. “Pull the trigger.”
When Na hit his tee shot into the water at the 13th, a group of fans began singing: “Na, na, na, na, hey-hey-hey, goodbye.”
At the ninth tee, Na got booed after backing off.
“Honestly, part of it, I deserve it,” Na said. “I’m being honest, but is it fair? No. You put an average guy between those ropes, trust me, they won’t even pull it back.”
At the sixth hole, a fan fed up after a Na bogey raced to the ropes with a message.
“We had a clown come up after he made a good bogey,” Na’s caddie, Kenny Harms, said. “He says, ‘I got $2,000 on you, so you better not start choking.’ This is a game of etiquette. It’s not basketball. It’s not football. Show some class. There’s no reason to do that to anybody. It’s not like he is doing it on purpose. He feels more badly about it than anyone else. He’s doing everything he can to get fast.”
Na started the final round with a one-shot lead in a bid to win his second PGA Tour title. He closed with a 76 with six bogeys.
“Kevin is a great guy in the locker room,” said Kuchar, who won playing alongside Na. “He’s nice to everybody, but he’s fighting some demons with pulling the trigger.”
While Na, 28, has won over a share of sympathetic fans who admire how he is owning up to his troubles, his neurotic pre-shot routine is brutal to watch. Even Na hates it. You can hear him chewing himself out when he’s unable to pull the trigger.
“I had people say try not to watch him,” Kuchar said. “It’s like trying not to look at the leaderboard. You have to kind of watch Kevin, and there’s some audio included. So, even if you’re not watching, you can hear it. I could have plugged my ears and closed my eyes, maybe. That could have been a game plan. But I knew that sort of thing wasn’t going to get the best of me.”
Trying to win with demon neurons misfiring and with heckling in the head would have made a Na victory Sunday the biggest upset in golf since Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open.
Na knows he has a problem, and he vowed to fix it.
“I’m going to try to take out the whole waggle,” Na said. “No waggle. I’m going to try to do a little up and down behind the ball, but it’s going to take time, practice and tournaments. I’m going to try to take out the whole waggle, but, honestly, it’s going to be a battle.”
This pre-shot routine didn’t go haywire all of a sudden. Na battled it even when he broke through to win the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open last fall. The remarkable thing about it is how well he has played with a pre-shot routine so dysfunctional.
“It’s been that way all year long, and he’s been playing great,” Harms said.
Harms said Na’s stuttering swing was never as bad as it was at the Frys.com Open last fall after he won in Las Vegas. The deliberate whiffs have been regular.
“It wasn’t really noticed because we weren’t on TV,” Harms said.
“It’s not like he is doing this on purpose,” Harms said. “He feels more badly about it than anyone else. He’s doing everything he can to get fast. We have changed our whole putting routine, which is speeded up. We’re going to get better. We are going to be one of the faster players out here once he gets over being able to pull the trigger.”
Actually, Na’s waggles and stop-and-go address patterns weren’t as bad Sunday. He was trying hard to play as quickly as possible. He even ran between some shots, a practice Kuchar found odd. It helped with pace of play until the duo was put on the clock at the 14th hole. Na said that was more about all the bad shots he hit than the bad pre-shot routine.
“I feel like I did a decent job today,” Na said. “I appreciate all the people who are rooting for me. I can hear people rooting for me. There are a couple guys who get on your nerves, but it is what it is.”
It is a struggle that looks like it will make or break Na’s career.