Kevin Na Insists His Latest Near-Miss Is Not Cause for Despair

October 21, 2015

There’s no cheering in the press box, but on Sunday, in my living room, I was pulling hard for Kevin Na. The reasons are both personal and professional. A couple of weeks ago I filed to SI headquarters a 7,000-word profile on Na that I had been working on for months. I can’t say too much about the story since it hasn’t been printed yet, but I would have happily rewritten the ending had Na won the Open. This was his 300th career tournament on Tour, but he has only one victory, a vexing stat considering Na now owns 49 career top-10 finishes. On Sunday at Silverado Country Club, in Napa, Calif., it looked as if it would be another lost opportunity as Na made three bogeys early in the round to tumble down the leaderboard. But he rallied heroically with birdies on five of the last 10 holes, including a do-or-die five-footer on the 72nd hole to force a playoff. My kids, having been briefed on the situation, joined me in hooting and hollering when the putt dropped. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Na was shaky on the first playoff hole, the easy par-5 18th, driving into a fairway bunker and then dumping his layup into the rough, dooming him to a par. He should have been eliminated right then, but rookie Emiliano Grillo gassed a three-footer, giving Na new life. Playing the 18th again, he hit a perfect drive and had the upper hand when Grillo drove into a bunker, but wielding a driver off the deck Na uncorked a dropkicked snipe way left into the trees, some 100 yards short of the green. He was on his way to a bogey when Grillo put him out of his misery. To the casual fan, who knows Na only for his struggles to take the club back at the 2012 Players or the 16 he made on one hole in San Antonio in ’11, this fit an easy narrative: Na wilts again. Me, I see it a little differently.

I know, I’ve already proclaimed my lack of objectivity. When you spend countless hours interviewing a subject, probing into the deepest recesses of his psyche, it’s easy to want the best for him. (In a weird way, this is analogous to Alfred Hitchcock always falling in love with his leading ladies.) Na is maybe the most unusual character I’ve run across in 22 years covering the PGA Tour. For a pro athlete he’s remarkably unguarded, and we talked at length about his mental demons; he was always introspective and unflinchingly honest. It’s easy to view Na, 32, as an underachiever, given the scarcity of wins, but I’m inclined to see him as the ultimate underdog, a guy who has already beaten very long odds. He skipped his senior year of high school to turn pro at 17 and then methodically fought his way onto the PGA Tour. He’s a short hitter and not particularly straight either, but he’s reached as high as 21st in the World Ranking and four times played his way to the Tour Championship. At just under $20 million, he’s 55th on the Tour’s all-time career money list. Na’s money-maker has always been his putter, but he told me a few times his blade had been ice-cold throughout the 2015 season. That’s why the 72nd hole putt at the Fry’s was such a big deal. (Two tournaments ago, at the BMW, Na also made a clutch putt on the final green, that time a 10-footer to punch his ticket to the Tour Championship.) Na told me that in the past, when in contention, he had often played too conservatively, so I was thrilled when he swung that driver off the deck, even if it went awry. Even better was that afterward he said he’d do the same thing all over again. Asked about not winning, Na said, “You know what? It’s coming.” So, too, is my story. This week Na plays in his adopted hometown, Las Vegas, site of his only Tour victory. There’s still time for both of us to produce a new ending.