PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — There is no more fickle, finicky course on the PGA Tour than TPC Sawgrass. The winner of the Players Championship one year is just as likely to miss the cut the next. The tournament favors long hitters except when it favors short ones. It makes no sense. It is impervious to predictions.
So it’s fitting that the leader of the 39th Players is Kevin Na, who shot a bogey-free 68 to take a one-stroke lead over Matt Kuchar (69) and a three-shot lead over Rickie Fowler (66) on a Saturday that went from breezy to benign.
The leader of one of the most important tournaments on one of the nastiest courses has the full-swing yips, and Na was such a pileup of false casts and waggles that he was hard to watch Saturday. He yelled at himself upon suffering his worst fit of false starts on the 14th tee, but he managed to hit the fairway. It happened again on 18; he hit the green.
“I changed my setup starting at the Masters last year,” Na said after the round, when he answered every question from the media and laughed at himself. “I was trying to get more forward, trying to get the backswing more up. And because my balance at the setup is totally different, I don't feel comfortable. I'm trying to get comfortable with my waggles. It's usually a little waggle, half-waggle, little waggle, half-waggle, and boom, supposed to pull the trigger. But if it doesn't work, I've got to go in pairs. So it'll go four; and if it doesn't work, it'll go six; and after that—there's a lot going on in my head.”
The room erupted with laughter.
“And it's not—I'm not being nice to myself, trust me,” Na added. “I'm ripping myself. But you know, there's so much on the line that I just have to sometimes back off. Or I'll force myself to take it back, and on the way down I'll come up and pull up and go over the top. As ugly as it is and as painful as it is, believe me, it's really tough for me, and I'm trying.”
Ben Curtis (70) and Zach Johnson (73), who played with Na, were at seven under, five off the lead. Four players were at six under, six shots behind.
Na used to be known as an excruciatingly slow player on the greens, where he must place his ball according to the straight line he draws on it. Now he’s an excruciatingly slow player from tee to green; he’s relatively normal with a putter.
The waggle problem, Na says, has not always been there. It was a recent swing change that led to his discomfort, and now he’s fighting a balance issue as well as his insistence that his “little waggles” and “half-waggles” (his words) add up to an even number. As usual, he played much of the back nine on the clock.
“I feel bad for him,” NBC’s Johnny Miller said on the air, speaking for many. “I mean really, it is embarrassing to him. It’s not like he wants to do this.”
Fewer than half of the third-round leaders or co-leaders (16 of 38) have gone on to win the tournament, the most recent casualty being Graeme McDowell last year, when he struggled to a final-round 79 to tie for 33rd place.
Kuchar is hoping a tie for third at the Masters last month gives him the confidence to pull through at Sawgrass on Sunday. A 33-year-old, three-time Tour winner, he’s made the cut in all nine starts this year, racking up so many good finishes he’s earned more than $1.2 million. He realized in talking to sports psychologist Gio Valiante a few years ago that he tended to get too tentative in pressure situations, leaving putts short. Kuchar survived a wild back nine Saturday, making four birdies, three bogeys—including a water ball on 17—and two pars.
Fowler was the day’s biggest mover, shooting a six-under 66 that was marred only by a bogey on 18. The winner of the Wells Fargo Championship last week, his first victory on the PGA Tour, Fowler zoomed from a tie for 17th place into solo third, just three shots off the lead at nine under par.
“Back to back would be huge,” said Fowler, who beat Rory McIlroy at the Korean Open last fall before again holding him off, as well as D.A. Points, at Quail Hollow last weekend. “Obviously it hasn’t been done very often.”
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, both former Players winners, did little to strike fear in the leaders. Mickelson missed several back-nine birdie putts and shot 70 to get to four under—eight back—while Woods carded a 72 and remained at two under. Raymond Floyd came from six strokes back to win in 1981, the biggest come-from-behind victory at the Players. Two players, Justin Leonard in 1998 and Henrik Stenson in 2009, came from five shots behind to win here.
“It was the exact kind of day that I needed,” Mickelson said, a reference to the swirling winds that reached nearly 20 mph in the morning before calming in the afternoon. “I needed a few more birdies to make up the ground I wanted.”
Mickelson came from six behind to win at Pebble Beach in February.
Na authored one of the strangest rounds of the day, struggling more than once to take the club back on full shots. He apologized to playing partner Johnson when it happened on the sixth hole; yelled at himself on the 14th tee; and struggled again to take the club back in the 18th fairway.
Each time, Na regained his composure and hit a good shot.
“I think the only guy that would really understand is Sergio [Garcia], if I played with him, because he’s gone through it,” Na said. (Garcia went through a similar problem bringing the club back, reaching the low point at the 2002 U.S. Open at New York’s Bethpage Black, and was heckled by the fans.)
“Guys that’ve played with me, they kind of laugh,” added Na, 28, who turned pro out of high school and won his first Tour event in Las Vegas last year. “Guys that haven’t played with me, their eyes get about this big.”
Na has missed the cut in four of his six starts here. (Best result: a T3 in 2009.) Kuchar has finished in the top 20 at Sawgrass three times.
“I hope that it doesn’t cause any problems,” said Kuchar, who hasn’t played much golf with Na but had heard about the waggle and slow-play issues this week. “I don’t foresee it. There are a lot of slow guys out here.”
Na may be slow, but he was quick to get the writers on his side. He’s clearly tortured by his problem, so much so that it would have surprised no one if he’d begun crying in the interview room. The laughter broke the tension.
“Just bear with me,” he said, “and hopefully we get that [Sunday] round in.”
Na and the writers cracked up. Get the round in? As hard as Sawgrass is, and the way Na is fighting himself, no one was taking it for granted.