PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The leader was beginning his final round at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Sunday as Bob Estes stood in the parking lot digesting his final-round 65, which tied for the low round of the week. Like many on the property, Estes was thinking about the curious case of Kevin Na, the leader, who reminded Estes of a teenager in Abilene, Texas, who couldn’t get settled over the ball, who kept looking at the target, who couldn’t pull the trigger.
Estes had the same problem as Na.
“It was just as bad,” said Estes, 46. “It was embarrassing.”
Na’s herky-jerky pileup of waggles, half-waggles and last-second swing cancellations was the talk of Sawgrass this weekend, and it raised several questions. Is the slow play problem on Tour getting better? “Worse,” Tiger Woods said. Is Na’s dilemma more like a verbal stutter, or is it more like second-baseman Chuck Knoblauch suddenly losing the ability to throw a baseball to first base?
The thorniest question of all: Should we feel sorry for Kevin Na?
“I’m not being nice to myself, trust me,” Na said during his alternately awkward and hilarious press conference Saturday. “I’m ripping myself.”
Na answered every question about his swing stutter. He made fun of himself, and most everyone in the room laughed with him. He feels horrible about his condition, whatever it is. Playing with Jim Furyk at Hilton Head earlier this year, Na backed off a shot and apologized. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a player do that,” Furyk said. Na apologized to Zach Johnson on Saturday.
And yet because slow play is such a sensitive issue on Tour, the disarmingly honest Na has come in for criticism from fans, media members and even fellow players. Furyk, who is an active member of the Players Advisory Council, which has long wrestled with slow play, said he isn’t entirely sympathetic to Na.
“Chuck Knoblauch couldn’t get the ball from second to first and he lost his job because of it,” Furyk said as Na began his final round. “Kevin is leading the tournament. There’s a difference. I feel bad for people when something happens to them that they can’t control, like an earthquake knocks down their house.”
Does Na have control over his yippy, twitchy pre-shot electrical storm? He doesn’t seem to, but he is making a conscious effort to play faster, which would seem to indicate he does have some handle on his pokey play. Chris Couch played with Na in Phoenix this year, and was so impressed he commended Na on his progress.
“He’s actually tried really hard to speed up,” Couch said. “I mentioned to him what a good job he’s done with it. This week is tough, especially with the pins they have out there. I think everybody is having a problem.”
“It seems like Kevin is working hard to get his trigger back,” Peter Hanson said. “The one thing I don’t like is when he takes a swing over the ball, the air swing. To me it’s a little bit too close to a proper swing.”
“I heard about it,” Tiger Woods said, when asked about Na’s fidgeting. “I never have experienced something like that, but I’ve seen it before. I played with Sergio [Garcia] in ’02, and I think on one hole he re-gripped it 20-plus times.”
On the first tee, Na’s playing partners joke about getting “the short straw,” and Na knows they’re not entirely joking. Zach Johnson shot 73 when Na was at his fidgety worst in shooting 68 Saturday, and he left the course without comment. It was assumed he was upset after spending all day with Na. Not so, Johnson insisted.
“Just to clarify,” he tweeted, “I did NOT decline interviews after my round. No one offered any interviews. No big deal. Just the facts. NO hard feelings!”
Estes says the best way to play with Na is the way some played with Garcia when he was furiously re-gripping the club: Don’t watch; just listen for the strike.
Na says his struggles are due in part to a swing change he’s trying to implement under new coach Dale Lynch. It feels uncomfortable. Estes knows the feeling. As a teenager he had what is sometimes called “the Hubies,” or the look-ups, a pre-shot malady made famous by 19-time PGA Tour winner Hubert Green.
“I was a tall, skinny kid playing in 30-, 40-mile-per-hour winds in West Texas,” Estes said. “I wanted to play well so badly, just like Kevin, and I could never get my balance. I didn’t want to hit a shot until I felt like I was balanced, but I was getting blown around all over the place, so I could never pull the trigger. So I got in the bad habit, like Hubert Green, of just looking up, looking up. I was really bad.”
What can be done about slow play? The Tour could be quicker to dock a guy a stroke, which it hasn’t done in 20 years. It could reduce field size, which is both the ultimate fix and the ultimate no-no, since it eliminates playing opportunities. Perhaps it could send every Tour pro to play in Japan for a year. Geoff Ogilvy says the respect for authority there is such that a slow-play warning can start a track meet. “I’m not kidding,” Ogilvy said. “They literally start running.”
What can be done about Kevin Na? That’s more complicated.
“I had a friend who used to pump the grip 20-plus times before he’d hit,” Furyk said. “He was a good player, played Division I golf. He took a summer off from tournament golf to fix it to where he’d take two waggles and then hit.”
Estes left Abilene for Austin and a scholarship to the University of Texas, where in calmer conditions he developed a pre-shot routine and a reliable trigger.
“I was a victim, in a sense, of what I was trying to accomplish in West Texas, where the wind was always blowing,” Estes said. “I spent way too much time playing and practicing in those conditions. You knew if you hit a shot out of balance in a 30-, 40-mile-per-hour wind, it was going off the golf course.”
The stakes are high for Na, too. The 28-year-old was playing for a $1.7 million first-place check Sunday, but he shot himself out of it with a front-nine 39. He signed for a 76 and tied for seventh place; a second Tour victory will have to wait.
“He did a much better job today,” NBC’s Roger Maltbie said on the air.
That’s because Na, by his own admission, speeds up when he plays poorly, one of many issues he’ll have to confront going forward. He must master his swing change, make sure he doesn’t get two bad times in a row (and thus get assessed a penalty stroke), and either rediscover his old trigger or find a new one.
Should we feel sympathy or disdain for Na? Of course we should feel sorry for him. Why would we torture him even more?