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Na-Garrigus pairing's pace in spotlight on Day 3

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Slow-playing Kevin Na is only one shot back at a tournament sponsored by a paint company. The punch line is practically set up on a tee.

As expected, the quips and critiques were plentiful again Saturday with Na on the clock and under the spotlight in the final group at the Valspar Championship.

Two holes behind the group in front of them for much of the afternoon, both Na and leader Robert Garrigus received bad times during their third round, but neither player was penalized. They remain 1-2 on the leaderboard, with Garrigus holding a one-shot lead at 8-under 205.

Garrigus is no slowpoke, and this marked the first time in his 19 years as a pro that he was told he had a bad time. That fact didn’t sit well with his caddie, Brent Henley, who grumbled after the round: “It ain’t right to play with that guy,” referring to Na. “It’s just not right. You can put me on the record.”

Yet here’s the thing: Kevin Na didn’t think that they played slowly during the third round here. And, time-wise, they didn’t – the final group played in 3 hours, 54 minutes.

Instead, Na says his group was the victim of unfortunate circumstances, that they appeared far slower than they actually were.

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First, Pat Perez, playing in the group ahead, took a penalty on the third hole and went back to the tee to hit his third shot. A five-minute wait ensued. (It also should be noted that Perez, already a lightning-fast player, moves even more swiftly when he’s out of contention, as he was during a Saturday 77.) Second, it took Garrigus a while to sort out a ruling when his ball came to rest on the cart path on the fifth hole.

“It’s impossible to make up 10 minutes, unless you’re running to the tee,” Na’s caddie, Kenny Harms, said afterward. “We’re playing for a million dollars here. No one is going to be running to hit shots. Let’s be serious.”

When Garrigus and Na finished their post-round TV interviews, they gathered by the autograph line near the clubhouse.  

“Did you rip me a new one?” Na asked.

“Nah, I gave you props,” Garrigus said. “You’re way better now.”

Afterward, Garrigus downplayed the impact of Na’s pace of play, but Henley said that it felt as though they were “running after them” for much of the day.

“It just got us out of our rhythm,” Henley said. “That’s on me. It won’t happen again.”

Not surprisingly, Harms rushed to his player’s defense, detailing the ways in which Na has improved his pace of play over the past few years. 

When they first began working together, “he was unbelievably slow,” Harms said. Na lined up his putter. He lined up his ball. The process was excruciating, and each step had to be perfect or he started from square one.

“Is he the fastest player? Absolutely not,” Harms said. “But he’s so much faster than he was. He’s not the slow player he used to be, but he’s going to get blamed for everything.”

That’s the part that most bothers Na, and for good reason.

“It’s my reputation,” he said. “I might never get over it.”

When asked how much faster he is now, Na says, “A ton. It’s not fair for me because I already have that stamp on me.”

Yes, he still has moments of weakness, of indecision, of mind-numbing slowness. His bad time Saturday stemmed from his tee shot on the 13th hole. Fans weren’t stopped from crossing the fairway, which held up play, and then Na was a “little indecisive,” Harms said, “and he probably did go over (the 60-second limit) a little bit.”

But make no mistake: This is not the same player that we saw two years ago at the Players, where his dawdling drew the ire of fans. “I was basically on national TV, for four days, unable to take the club back,” he said.

Na admitted that about “5 percent” of those mental demons still exist, which inevitably leads to one of those bizarre swings over the ball.

There hasn’t been a slow-play penalty in a PGA Tour event since 1995, but last year both Guan Tianlang (Masters) and Hideki Matsuyama (British Open) were on the wrong side of the stopwatch at the majors.  

There is an every-shot-matters ethos on Tour, and it really kicks into overdrive when the punishment for a second bad time is discussed. Sure, there’s a $5,000 fine, but even more critical is the one-shot penalty, the latter of which can make a significant difference come Sunday afternoon.

Na says that the threat of that second bad time always lingers.

“You basically don’t have that option to second rethink the shot,” he said. “Your first thought, you have to go with it.”

That’s why he always keeps an eye on the group ahead and the group behind.

That’s why he occasionally will run to the fairway.

That’s why his caddie is always the first to the ball, crunching the numbers for his yardage.

All of those mental gymnastics, and then Na must also balance the fact that there is so much at stake, and the wind swirls, and one wrong decision can cost $1 million, and all of a sudden the clock is ticking, and backing off is not an option, and tick-tick-tick you better pull the trigger. Now.

“I’m very aware of my situation and I’m doing everything I can,” Na said. “I don’t know what else I can do, really. I mean, for what we’re playing for and what’s on the line, how much more can you really expect?”