Commentary

Kevin Na slow-plays way to TPC lead

Updated: May 12, 2012, 11:26 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The man who leads the so-called Fifth Major is harder to watch than a circumcision. At an IMAX theater.

Kevin Na plays slow. He plays so slow that his five o'clock shadow doesn't show up until midnight. Glaciers ask him for his autograph.

Did you see him Saturday during the third round of The Players Championship? He shot a 4-under-par 68, was one of only three players who didn't record a bogey and ended his day with a walk-in birdie on No. 18.

It was an amazing performance, mostly because I never thought I'd see Charles Barkley Jr. take a one-shot lead into the final day of this tournament.

Sir Charles has the 16-piece takeaway, followed by paralysis. YouTube it; you'll see. Na has the pre-shot routine from Satan.

"It's usually a little waggle, half-waggle, little waggle, half-waggle and then, boom, supposed to pull the trigger," said Na. "But if it doesn't work, I've got to go in pairs. So it'll go four [waggles], and if that doesn't work, it'll go six and after that, just -- there's a lot going on in my head."

Na doesn't have just one swing thought, he has a dozen. And they're all fighting each other for his attention. It's like trying to play golf on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

If Na wins -- and he has a one-stroke advantage over Matt Kuchar -- it would be one of the greatest performances in Players Championship history. Name me another guy who won this thing as he screamed at himself?

[+] EnlargeKevin Na
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesNot only did Kevin Na take an unimaginable number of waggles before hitting shots Saturday at The Players, several times he took full swings over the ball, which looked like whiffs except he was doing it on purpose.

"And trust me, I get ripped a lot," he said. "I know TV, Twitter and fans are tired of me backing off [the ball]. I understand people being frustrated with me backing off, but all I can tell you guys is, honestly, I'm trying and it's hard for me, too. But just bear with me and hopefully we get that tomorrow round in."

He was kidding. I think.

Na was exhausted after Saturday's 68. You'd be, too, if you played against TPC Sawgrass, the windy conditions and yourself.

Those waggles add up. On the No. 1 tee box, Na took a practice swing, stretched, took two more practice swings, looked at his line, addressed the ball, took one, two, three, four, five takeaways, paused, then six, seven, eight ... then stepped back, composed himself, then nine, 10 and -- finally! -- he hit the flippin' ball.

On No. 14, I counted 11 waggles, then a swing over the top of the ball, then five more waggles before he hit his drive. But I might have fallen asleep near the end, so don't hold me to it.

"I know guys make [jokes] -- in the locker room or in the [fitness] trailer -- guys will be like, `I've got to play with you today ... I've got the short straw,'" said Na. "But they mean it to a certain point, and to a certain point they're kidding."

On No. 6, Na stood over the ball, took a half dozen waggles, backed off and then told his playing partner Zach Johnson, "Zach, I'm trying."

Johnson, said Na, told him, "Just do what you need to do. You're playing well and keep it up."

The usually media-friendly Johnson politely declined all interviews after the round. Maybe it was the 73 he shot. Or his pairing being put on the clock beginning on the 10th hole -- all because of Na's slow play. Or maybe he simply had Na fatigue.

Whatever it was, it's Kuchar's problem now. He and Na will be in the final pairing together.

"There's a lot of slow guys out here that we play with on a regular basis, so it's part of the deal," Kuchar said.

Kuchar was being diplomatic. Some of his playing peers, not so much.

From Colt Knost, on Twitter: "I don't care what he wears. Tell him to play faster, Elk."

Even Na's practice-round buddy, Sung Kang, shakes his head at the pre-shot routine. He told Na once, "Bro, I don't know how you do it."

But here's the thing: Na played well Saturday. And Friday. And Thursday. He has one tour victory with that pre-shot nuttiness. He could have another one by the end of Sunday.

"If you removed all Kevin Na's idiosyncrasies before his takeaway," Tweeted U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, "his action is actually pretty pure."

So is his honesty. Na doesn't want to become a national punch line. But when you hit double-digit waggles, as Sergio Garcia did during the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002, you're going to hear about it. So Na beats everyone to the punch.

"I'm not being nice to myself, trust me," he said. "I'm ripping myself."

A setup and swing change has a lot to do with the waggle-thon. He actually semi-begged/demanded a lesson from instructor Dale Lynch at the 2011 Masters. Lynch began working with him on a regular basis a few weeks later at the Valero Texas Open, where Na recorded his infamous 16 on the par-4 ninth hole -- tying the second-highest score in a tour event since 1983.

"He's always thought a lot about his golf swing as he's playing," said Lynch by telephone Saturday.

This isn't a good thing. Yet, Na has managed to put together three remarkable rounds. One more and he wins $1.7 million and earns a five-year PGA Tour exemption.

Lynch will be watching. And also wincing.

"It's hard to watch and painful for him when it's happening," said Lynch of the waggles. "But it's something very fixable."

Na and Lynch don't have time to tinker with it right now. And the way he's playing, why would he?

"As ugly as it is and as painful as it is, believe me, it's really tough for me and I'm trying," said Na.

Explanation accepted, Kevin. Anyway, you've already got enough on your mind.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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