Ponte Vedra Beach, FL – It didn't always look pretty on Saturday, but Kevin Na birdied the last hole to take the third-round lead at The Players Championship.
Na, one of three second-round leaders, shot a four-under 68 on Saturday to finish at 12-under 204. He owns a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar, another co- leader from round two, who had a 69 Saturday at the TPC Sawgrass.
The reason Na's round didn't always look pretty has to do with the constant waggle before his swing. Sometimes he stopped his swing mid-flight, or would walk away after he addressed the ball and even apologized to playing partner Zach Johnson.
"It's really hard for me to feel comfortable," Na told NBC. "I know the whole world is watching and when I back off, it's frustrating. It's really frustrating for me. I'm screaming at myself to pull the trigger.
"All I can do is try my best and do what's best for me to play well."
If you just looked at the time Na made contact with the ball, it was easy to see why he's the 54-hole leader. But the waggle and constant woes with the takeaway made for some uncomfortable scenes.
NBC reported he received a bad time on Saturday, and the PGA Tour Twitter feed confirmed that Na met with rules official Mark Russell after the round.
"Talking about pace of play. We were on the clock quite a bit. Everything's OK," Na said.
Na, who is forthright and candid about his problems, went about his business and closed brilliantly. He recorded birdies at two of his last three holes and will be in search of his second, and by far biggest, PGA Tour win.
"It's a tough situation," he said in his televised interview. "I'm trying."
Kuchar was in the lead throughout most of Saturday's third round, but he dunked his ball in the water in front of the famous island green at the 17th en route to a bogey.
His three-under 69 left him at minus-11 and put him in contention for his most significant PGA Tour title, just a month after contending at the Masters.
The tour's most recent winner made the biggest move on Saturday.
Rickie Fowler, who broke through for his first victory last week at Quail Hollow, fired a six-under 66 and is alone in third at nine-under 207.
"It's trying to make the most of playing well," said Fowler, who never made the cut in two previous trips to The Players Championship. "Played well the last two weeks and last week got the win. Nice to finally get to play on the weekend and making the most of it today, even more fun, and nice to be in the mix for tomorrow."
Johnson (73) and Texas Open winner Ben Curtis (70) share fourth at minus- seven.
Tiger Woods failed to get anything going on Saturday. He shot an even-par 72 and is in a large group tied for 34th at two-under.
"It was probably the most solid I've hit the golf ball all year actually," said Woods. "Even though I hit a couple off-line, but they were just hit dead- flush. I just got nothing out of the round."
Phil Mickelson posted a two-under 70 and moved into a tie for 14th at minus- four.
"It's not that I'm out of it per se, but I'm going to have to go that much lower tomorrow, two shots lower than I was hoping to, which means I'll probably have to shoot something in the mid 60s to have a chance," acknowledged Mickelson.
Everyone will be chasing Na and history is against him. No 54-hole leader has gone on to win since Stephen Ames in 2006, but while Na will battle demons on Sunday, his play on Saturday was nearly flawless.
He broke into red figures on Saturday with an 11-foot birdie putt at the par- three third. That was his only birdie on the front nine and he trailed Kuchar through much of the round.
Na rolled in a 33-foot birdie effort at the 12th, but that put him two behind. When Kuchar bogeyed the 17th, he fell down to 11-under par and Na joined him at that number with a 10-foot birdie at the par-five 16th.
Kuchar scrambled for a nice par at the last, but Na did one better. After another swing was halted just before impact on the tee, Na found the fairway, then hit his approach to 15 feet.
He poured in the birdie putt to move into sole possession of the lead.
"After I get done I'm pretty tired, because not only am I grinding against the course, but I'm fighting against myself," he admitted.
Na's only PGA Tour win came at the Justin Timberlake event in last year's Fall Finish. This marked the third time he owned a piece of the 54-hole lead on tour, but it will be the biggest stage he's ever occupied.
With so many thoughts running through his head, the stress of a final-round battle could plague Na. But he's trying to keep his sense of humor throughout this difficult process.
"I just hope that the fans can bear with me tomorrow because I really am trying," said Na. "Hopefully, we can get the round in tomorrow."
Jhonattan Vegas (68), Brian Davis (72), Jonathan Byrd (72) and Martin Laird (72) share sixth at six-under par.
NOTES: Na shared the third-round lead with Geoff Ogilvy, then lost in a playoff to him at the 2005 Tucson Open. He was also tied for the 54-hole lead with Nick Watney last year in Las Vegas, and won by two...Ian Poulter, Martin Kaymer and former winners Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott are part of the group tied with Mickelson at four-under par.