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Na may never overcome 'slow play' reputation

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“I don’t think we see pins on this type of severe slope anywhere else, not even at Augusta. Fast? Yes. But not on the slope like we see here." – on the greens at Quail Hollow  - 

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – One incident-free round can’t change a reputation, not after Kevin Na was already stamped as the poster child for one of the PGA Tour’s biggest problems.

But on Sunday, one day after being ripped for slow play – again – by TV commentators, Twitter trolls and even a caddie, Na was praised for his toughness and grit, for the way he battled to stay in contention at the Valspar Championship, where he eventually finished second to John Senden.

Tied for the lead on the front nine Sunday, Na played Nos. 7 and 8 in 3 over par, the latter after three-putting from 7 feet. He went 2 under to the house, including a miraculous up-and-down for par from the trees on 13, and along the way he delivered more uppercuts to the air than Tampa boxing champ Antonio Carver.

Underreported, of course, was the fact that during a round in which a Masters berth and $1 million were on the line, the wind gusted to 30 mph and Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course became firm and crusty, the final group of Na and Robert Garrigus was never put on the clock. There were few, if any, whispers of slow play. In fact, they waited to hit the majority of their shots.

“For as much criticism as I got,” Na said Sunday night, “I’m proud of myself for how I played.”

No player from the circuit’s middle class – maybe in all of golf – is more fascinating than Kevin Na. After all, he is a PGA Tour winner. He once made a 16 on a hole. He starred in an avert-your-eyes episode at The Players. And each tournament – each round and each hole, perhaps – he engages in a routine of mental gymnastics. That he’s even able to contend is a remarkable achievement.  

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Right on cue, his appearance in the final group on the weekend at Innisbrook brought out the slow-play brigade.

People saw the incessant replays of his indecision, the meticulous lining up, the bizarre whiffs over the ball. Mostly, though, they saw in Round 3 the two-hole gap between the last two groups – never mind that the opening was the product of extenuating circumstances (a lost ball in the group ahead; a lengthy ruling by fellow playing competitor Robert Garrigus).

When another player takes his time to play a shot, it’s because he’s being diligent in assessing his options. When Na does the same, it’s because he’s a human weather delay. He lost the benefit of the doubt, oh, a couple thousand waggles ago. 

For much of Saturday’s round, Na and Garrigus played in a threesome – the two players accompanied by a stopwatch-wielding rules official. When Garrigus, a reasonably fast player, was informed that his group was on the clock in the seventh fairway, he playfully responded by spraying water on the rules official. He wasn’t quite as lighthearted when told that he received a bad time on 14. That marked the first time in 19 years as a pro that he had received a slow-play warning. It’s not unreasonable to think that it causes anxiety every week for Na.

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

If nothing else, this past weekend once again highlighted the massive loophole in the timing system. The entire group is put on the clock, not the offending player who causes the group to lag behind. The slow players can then work the system, speeding up to return to position, only to retreat back into snail mode when the official disappears. That the circuit has not issued a slow-play penalty in a regular PGA Tour event since 1995 – and never in the new, two-bad time era – only underscores the system’s ineffectiveness.

In this case, it was Garrigus, not Na, who suffered the most. After going on the clock midway through Round 3, the tournament leader failed to make a birdie over his next 25 holes, by which time he’d already shot himself out of contention. No wonder his caddie, Brent Henley, popped off late Saturday, saying, “It ain’t fair playing with Kevin Na. It ain’t right.”

And this, remember, is a faster Kevin Na. His caddie, Kenny Harms, said that Na was one of the slowest players he’s ever seen when they first began working together six years ago. Now, he says, Na has “definitely speeded up his play” and is “no longer considered one of the slowest players on Tour.”

For many fans, though, it’s difficult to shake the memories of the 2012 Players, where in the final group Saturday Na stood over the ball and waggled and whiffed. But there’s an important distinction to be made. At that time Na had a mental block that prevented him from even taking back the club. The main issue now is whether his pre-shot routine (three practice swings, multiple looks at the hole) and decision-making process still takes too long.

The recent reviews, at least, are encouraging. Na says that both Louis Oosthuizen and his caddie complimented his improved pace of play after the first two rounds here. Even Garrigus said that Na isn’t that slow anymore, backing up the oft-criticized player on national TV. OK, so maybe Na isn’t the Tour’s biggest dawdler. Or maybe the players are just telling him what he wants to hear.

What’s clear, though, is that Na isn’t going away. The runner-up in Tampa was his fourth top 10 of the season, and his $1.3 million in earnings help negate an injury-plagued 2013 campaign. Na’s back went out in Malaysia in late 2012, and then he played without practicing and suffered another setback that spring in Puerto Rico. He played through pain at the Masters, but wound up on the shelf for three months. During that downtime he worked with a trainer in Korea, where he eventually met his fiancée.

“A blessing in disguise,” Harms says.

The caddie said that Na is a “different person now,” that the 30-year-old is “just coming out of a grinder mode,” in which every aspect – his preparation, his alignment, his black line on his golf ball – had to be perfect, an impossible pursuit, of course, in an imperfect game.   

“People want to see athletes who smile,” Harms says, and these days it’s hard to wipe the smile off Na’s face, even when he’s being fined and lampooned for his pace of play.

Harms said that Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee recently told him in Phoenix that he’d rather watch Na play golf than virtually any other player. Why? Because of “the excitement level,” Harms said, because “you never know what’s going to come next.”

A birdie and a fist pump.

A 16 from the trees.

A mental meltdown.

This is confusing, we know, since “Kevin Na” and “excitement” have perhaps never been used in the same sentence.

One incident-free round can’t change a reputation. Maybe no round ever will.