Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 17, 2012

As He Struggles, Na Can Learn From Kuchar’s Past

To the casual fan, the final pairing in Sunday’s fourth round of the Players Championship had to be a classic study in contrast. There was the eventual winner Matt Kuchar with his all-American good looks and seemingly perpetual smile that is usually measured in megawatts. Running onto the green to share his moment of victory after Kuchar sank his final putt were his pretty wife and two young sons. Also in the crowd surrounding the 18th green were his parents, who live nearby the TPC Sawgrass course, permanent home of the Players. Meanwhile playing alongside Kuchar was the third round leader, 28-year old Kevin Na, a native of South Korea who became a naturalized U.S. citizen after his family moved to this country when he was eight. Na is a bachelor, and had no large contingent of family cheering him on from behind the ropes.

For those either on the grounds or watching the NBC television coverage, the differences between the two were more than just demographic. At the age of 33 Kuchar is a member of the PGA Tour’s elite. He topped the money list and won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average in 2010. The win at the Players was his fourth on Tour, and propelled him to fifth place in the World Golf Rankings, making him the second highest ranked American behind Masters champion Bubba Watson. The $1.7 million winner’s check, the largest on Tour, moved him up to fourth place on this year’s money list. He was a member of the U.S. team for both the 2010 Ryder Cup and the 2011 Presidents Cup, and is a lock to repeat as a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will renew its biennial battle with Team Europe at Medinah this September. His consistent good play coupled with his sunny disposition has made him a favorite of golf fans. Throughout the day, whenever his smooth, seemingly effortless swing produced a winning shot, cries of “Kooch!” rang through the gallery.

Kuchar’s place in the golfing firmament is one about which Na can only dream. Last October, in the 211th event of an eight year career on Tour, he finally recorded his first victory at the laboriously named Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. But prior to this weekend if they thought about him at all, the first memory that most fans had of Na was not that win but rather his performance on a single hole at the 2011 Valero Texas Open. On the par-4 9th hole in the opening round, Na sent his drive far offline to the right. Finding his ball in a thick grove of trees Na declared it unplayable. With a one-shot penalty he headed back to the tee to hit his third shot. Unfortunately his next drive was virtually identical to his first. This time he tried to hit out of the forest, and his fourth shot ricocheted off a branch of a live oak and struck him, resulting in an additional one-shot penalty. It only got worse from there as he needed several more swings to escape the trees. By the time he reached the green and two-putted, Na had recorded a 16, the highest score on a par-4 in the history of the PGA Tour.

If Kuchar’s smile seems permanent, Na’s visage on Sunday was decidedly more somber. After leading the field in birdies through the first three rounds with 20 and recording one of just two bogey-free rounds on Saturday, Na saw his one-stroke lead vanish with a string of four bogeys in five holes to close out the front nine. By the time he struggled home with a four-over 76, Na had dropped down the leaderboard into a tie for seventh, five shots adrift of Kuchar. Known as one of the slower players on tour, Na and playing partner Zach Johnson had fallen out of position during the third round and been put on the clock. While being timed Na received a warning for taking too much time to hit a shot on the 16th. On Sunday Na seemed to consciously try to speed up his pace, but the result was that he never found a rhythm that would have enabled him to hit good golf shots.

To anyone watching, Kuchar’s fluid rhythm and swing and Na’s futile quest to find one of his own was the most shocking contract between the two players. In an effort to elevate his game Na made significant swing changes in the past year. He readily admits that as a result he is not comfortable over the ball, feeling as though he is out of balance. Because of this he has enormous difficulty pulling the trigger, or starting his swing. He will waggle the club back and forth, take repeated partial backswings, and stand over the ball for what seems an eternity, trying to find a moment when he is ready to commit to the shot. Twice during Saturday’s third round he changed his mind at the very top of his backswing. At the last possible moment he pulled out of the shot, swinging the club violently through the air a foot above the ball.

It was true train wreck television; excruciating to watch even while being impossible to turn away from. On the course Na was the recipient of some heckling from a few yahoos who had spent too much time in one of the hospitality tents. Yet no one in the gallery was any harder on Na than he was, and is, on himself. He remains determined to overcome the demons that currently dance in his mind when he addresses the golf ball, and displayed both class and grace as he answered every question from the media about his pre-shot struggles.

As unlikely as it might seem given all of their obvious differences, in that quest Kevin Na can find common ground with Matt Kuchar. Kuchar exploded onto the consciousness of golf fans in the summer of 1998. As the reigning U.S. Amateur champion he was awarded a spot in the field for both the Masters and the U.S. Open. He not only made the cut in both tournaments, easily winning the prize for low amateur, he was in the mix at both events right up until the final round, eventually finishing tied for 21st at Augusta and tied for 14th at the Olympic Club, site of that year’s U.S. Open. Two years later after finishing college he turned pro, and no one was surprised when he captured the Honda Classic in the spring of 2002. Then without warning the game that had been so easy became surpassingly difficult. By 2006, when Kuchar was 28, the same age Na is now, he had lost his Tour card and was relegated to the developmental Nationwide Tour. Kuchar could have become an afterthought, a name that when mentioned would prompt “whatever happened to him” questions. But he persevered, and today has the victories, the awards, the bank account and the fan base that prove the long road was worth every step.

There is no guarantee that Kevin Na will tread a similar path, but there is also no denying his ability. For all of his difficulties in making a golf swing, last week he led one of the deepest fields of the year for more than three rounds. The first tournament in which he changed his mind in the middle of a shot and intentionally whiffed was the one he won last October. This year, while battling for a sense of balance over the golf ball, he already has five top-10 finishes, just one short of the number he recorded all of last season. Perhaps golf fans will one day wonder whatever happened to Kevin Na; or perhaps some of the hecklers from Sunday will one day be lining up for his autograph. If there is a fair reward for displaying honesty, humility and grace in a low moment, then Kevin Na’s road will take him toward the latter.

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