Published May 14, 2012
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – On Saturday and Sunday at The Players Championship, we saw one of the most alternately fascinating and sad stories in golf.
Kevin Na simply can not hit a golf ball when his mind won't allow it.
"I changed my setup starting at the Masters last year. I was trying to get more forward, trying to get the backswing more up," Na said Saturday after he took the 54-hole lead of The Players Championship. "And because my balance at the setup is totally different, I don't feel comfortable."
Na doesn't discriminate in his waggles.
He has a traditional waggle in which he just moves the club constantly before impact. He even will start the backswing and then pull off the ball, or go over it before impact.
"As ugly as it is and as painful as it is, believe me, it's really tough for me, and I'm trying," he said.
No matter how often Na stated he would work on it and that his goal was to be waggle-free by the end of the year, it's hard to imagine it ending any time soon.
Remember, this started at LAST year's Masters. That's 13 months ago.
He's won on tour, but it came in the Fall Series last year at the Justin Timberlake event. Na said that pressure will exacerbate his woes and sure enough it did.
He took the 54-hole lead, struggled on Sunday with a 76 and tied for seventh.
The psychologist in my family is my Aunt Patty, and unless you have some training in the field, you can't know how difficult the situation is for Na. I wouldn't dare diagnose what's wrong with a professional golfer who can't hit a ball.
It reminds you of a few guys in baseball who developed a mental block. Mackey Sasser, a catcher, couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher. Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, both second basemen, had trouble throwing to first.
Whatever Na tried, it added up to an uncomfortable weekend watching this professional golfer struggle with his demons so badly that he couldn't even strike the ball.
The amazing thing about this mental block is that when Na eventually made contact he hit the ball beautifully.
This was Na's biggest stage for the world to observe his plight. Frequently on Saturday, he apologized to playing partner Zach Johnson for the slowness, and Na is well aware of his problem.
He was forthright, somewhat painfully, all weekend about what ails him. It turned him into some sort of folk hero. The script was a somewhat heroic one about a man who constantly has to battle his own mind in the pursuit of his dreams.
But things turned quickly.
By Sunday afternoon, he was hearing some murmurs from the crowd about his pace of play.
"I don't want to say upset, but that was a little disappointed at the crowd," said Na. "Like I said, most of the people were great, but there's always some hecklers out there, like I was getting ready to get over the ball and you can just hear them saying, "Hit it,' and I just got over the ball. And I backed off and they're booing me. I said, 'Look, guys I backed off because of you guys. It's not like I backed off because I couldn't pull the trigger.'"
This is a dangerous area for Na.
Slow play is destroying professional golf. No one can stand it. Read some of these guys' Twitter feeds and you'll see as much. Rowdy fans don't want to wait for 60-plus seconds for a guy to hit a golf ball.
Na is in that territory right now.
Golf fans will turn unruly and quickly. Ask Sergio Garcia and the patrons at Bethpage Black in 2002. They were all over Garcia because of his waggles. The same will happen to Na.
It's also worth mentioning that before the waggles came on, Na was a notoriously slow player. He was always mentioned in the same breath as Ben Crane or Glen Day or Sean O'Hair.
Na blamed most of his previous slow play on his putting. He had a hard time seeing lines.
With the amount of money at stake, every golfer should take his time. We assail the slow player, myself included, but every single stroke matters out there.
This case is slightly different, but he needs to make drastic improvements.
We don't understand psychology. We scoff at it as some type of crutch, but clearly something is in Kevin Na's mind that is hurting his career. A tie for seventh at The Players isn't a bad thing, but Na needs to get this in check, and quickly otherwise face the wrath of the golf community.
After this week, we know Na's story, but the sympathy will erode.
It's on him to change it. How he does it will be another story.
"I don't know. Like I said, I'm going to work on it, and it is what it is," Na said.
- If I were you, and you had an early pick in your U.S. Open pool, I'd look at Matt Kuchar. You have to love a guy who contends for his first major title, loses, but comes back and wins the next big event. Kuchar's top 25 on tour in driving accuracy and greens in regulation. That's a formula for U.S. Open success.
- On the issue of slow play, if a player receives a second bad time in a round, he will be penalized a stroke. This needs to happen soon because pace of play is out of hand. The Na episode of the weekend may put PGA Tour officials on higher alert, so don't be shocked if someone gets penalized soon.
- Looks like Rickie Fowler is one of these guys who only needed to win to realize his full potential. After his victory at Quail Hollow, the Human Highlighter tied for second at Sawgrass. It's absurdly difficult to win back- to-back weeks and Fowler came closer than most.
- I don't think The Players Championship missed Bubba Watson too terribly.
- Davis Love III should've poured himself a nice glass of red Sunday night. Kuchar and Fowler basically guaranteed one of the eight automatic U.S. Ryder Cup spots. Zach Johnson, a surging Ben Curtis and Na are all in contention as well. Tiger Woods fell out, but as this team shapes up, Love can easily burn a pick on Woods because his top eight will be studs.
- Jose Maria Olazabal isn't crying in his Chianti. He has McIlroy, Donald, Westwood, Kaymer, Rose, Garcia and Graeme McDowell. That's not shabby.
- Movie moment - I've trumpeted this movie in the past, but watched it again Friday night. Please check out "Cedar Rapids" with Ed Helms and John C. Reilley. It has crude humor and a great story of becoming a different person.
- TV moment - I was awfully excited to see "Parks and Recreation" get a full season renewal. While "30 Rock" going off the air after next year seems appropriate and "The Office" taints its once historic legacy, "Parks" is now the best comedy on television.