PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Turn in your scarlet letter, Kevin Na. For one day, at least, you didn’t deserve to wear the red S -- for slow play.
Fairly or unfairly, Na is best known as one of the PGA Tour’s slowest players, but nobody had to wait on him during Sunday’s finale round at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course.
He was paired in the final group with Robert Garrigus so technically, no one was behind him. But slow play? He is more than happy to discuss that topic.
“Robert and I waited on the group in front of us on every hole today,” Na said with a big grin. “I hope people are talking about that.”
Strong winds gusted Sunday, slowing the pace of play for everyone on the tough Copperhead layout, but Na and Garrigus finished in about 4 hours 15 minutes, a pretty good time considering the blustery conditions. And they waited a lot.
After Saturday’s round in which Garrigus struggled coming in and his twosome with Na lagged a hole behind or more at times, there was criticism of Na’s slow play. It’s nothing new, going back two years to Na’s period where he had the full-swing yips and often would swing above the ball to reset. He admitted that he had demons, he frequently apologized to playing partners, and he’s tried to speed up his routine.
Garrigus was a mixture of amused and miffed when he got a bad timing during Saturday’s round -- he was on the clock because of Na and when he faced a tough pitch shot, he paced it off to the front of the green, walked back and exceeded the allotted 45 seconds. Garrigus, normally one of the fastest hitters on Tour, said he wasn’t worried because “I’ll never get another one,” but his caddie, Brent Henley, made some post-round comments critical of Na and said he believed it was unfair to be paired with him.
It wasn’t anything that Na hasn’t heard before.
“I know what I’ve got, and I don’t think it’s fair,” Na said Sunday. “Robert backed me up. He felt I wasn’t the cause. We waited every hole today and Robert was five over on the front side and I was three over. If they didn’t talk about that, then I don’t know what to tell you.”
It’s the nature of golf that once people learn one thing about you from TV -- the image of Na trying to pull the trigger on full swings during the high-profile 2012 Players -- that it’s difficult to shake such a perception. You can do it by replacing that image with another one, such as winning. One or two wins would erase that from the Na file.
He got the fans on his side by making a small run at the end after a poor front nine stretch in which he went bogey, bogey, double bogey, the last one coming on a three putt from seven feet. Na birdied the par-5 14th hole with a gutsy 5-wood second shot and two putts, then rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt at the par-3 17th hole after his 4-iron shot landed and rolled right past the cup.
Na came to the 18th needed a birdie to tie Senden, who pitched in to save a miraculous par at 16 and holed a 20-footer for birdie at the 17th. Na didn’t get his birdie, but he was proud to rally with 33 on the back and finish second by himself. A win would’ve gotten him to the Masters. He’s played there the last four years. “I don’t want that streak to end,” he said with a laugh, and added that he’s still got a couple more chances.
If he’s not in Augusta? “Of course I’ll watch,” he said. “I’ll make myself comfortable on the sofa and get a drink and enjoy watching it. But let’s hope I’m playing.”
No matter what, the 2014 season is turning into a pretty good one for Na, 30, whose only Tour win was the 2011 event in Las Vegas. He entered the season needing to win $484,000 in 18 events under a major medical extension to retain his tour card. Valspar is his fourth top-10 finish and Na has already buried that milestone. He won $752,352 in his first nine tournaments, including a third at the Frys.com Open, an eighth at the Sony Hawaiian Open and a fourth at Pebble Beach. His runner-up finish here was worth another $615,600.
It’s almost enough to make you forget about that other thing. Like when a Golf Channel interviewer corralled him by the scoring trailer after Sunday’s round and began his first question with, “You got off to kind of a slow start today…” and two nearby print reporters looked at each other and grinned at the unintended pun -- “slow start.”
Na is on the way to playing through his reputation, perhaps, and the more chances he gives himself to win, the more likely the public is to forget the other stuff.
He didn’t win here but it was a good week. “All positives,” Na said with a smile.
It didn’t take Na long to respond to that question, either. He answered quickly.
Hey, it’s a start.