ERIN, Wis. – Of all the names you'd expect to contend at this 117th U.S. Open, Kevin Na's was likely scratched off a few lists before the tour buses rolled into town. He is, you may recall, the pro who posted a video last weekend on social media complaining about Erin's long, lush fescue. Surely, pundits opined, this was a sign he was already deep inside his own head. The golf gods would take it from there. You'd think a Friday afternoon trunk-slam would be more likely than a title run.
Na shot a steady four-under 68 during a sunny, steamy opening round to trail leader Rickie Fowler by three shots. The 33-year-old rang up six birdies, including a sporty 12-foot putt on the 9th hole, his last of the day. He also hit one ball into the deep fescue he publically criticized. More on that shortly.
Na became a bit of an Internet sensation Sunday when he posted a video to social media that showed him speaking straight to camera while flipping a ball into the hay and struggling to thrash it out. Here it is:
Now, say what you will about Na's complaint, but here at GOLF.com we appreciate a well-crafted video, and for a Tour-pro created iPhone film, this one rates extremely high. But despite the high production value, Na drew fire from around the web. The controversy only heightened Tuesday morning when the USGA hacked down the rough on several holes. The blue coats insisted the landscaping was due to inclement weather, not Na's carping, but mowing is mowing. Na said he laughed about it with his fellow pros.
"They got a kick out of it. A lot of players were saying 'thank you, they mowed the fescue because of me,'" he said. "'Hey, can you tell them the course is too long, [so] they'll move up the tees?' The players get it. And I had a good time."
For a guy who threw himself into the spotlight, his galleries were pretty thin on Thursday afternoon. A small group of his buddies made the trip from Milwaukee, and they gave him some encouragement as he strolled between holes.
"He's pretty good today," said Tom Chung, who's known Na for 10 years. "Only problem is, he's not long."
Many expected Erin to favor big hitters, but Na was one of several players Thursday to prove otherwise. After starting his round with a bogey on 10, Na found a groove splitting fairways, striping irons and rolling putts. He birdied four of his last five holes on his opening nine to turn in 33. He made another birdie on 2 to move squarely onto the leaderboard.
But then on the par-5 7th Na pulled his drive into the deep stuff, and suddenly here it was, the karmic moment you knew was coming: Kevin Na in the tall grass. Two marshals, all three members of Na's group, and all three caddies waded into the weeds searching for the ball. After about a minute, a spotter found it, but Na had no play.
"I was lucky to find it," Na said. "I looked at it and asked my caddie for a wedge. He said, 'No chance.' Everyone has to hit in there during the tournament. And sometimes you're going to get lucky and you're going to have a shot, and sometimes you're just lucky to find your ball."
Na took a drop and bogeyed the hole, but he quickly steadied himself with an 11-foot par-saver on 8 and the birdie on 9. For the day he hit 11 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens, which are numbers that will keep you hanging around in a U.S. Open. Last year at Oakmont, he notched his first career Open top 10. Now he's ready to put his social media maelstrom behind him and take a run at it.
"Some of the guys took my social media post kind of the wrong way. If you read my post, it says I love the design. I was just trying to show what we have in some spots. And fairways are generous. I said all that. But I guess people don't like to read," he said with laugh.
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow."