The nightmares were the first sign that golf was not going to be kind to Kevin Na. Sometimes he missed a putt on the last green, or he hit a ball in the water on the 72nd hole, or maybe another player produced a heroic shot to beat him, but the result was always the same: Na would lose the tournament and then awaken in a panic, his heart jumping out of his chest. He would be haunted for a decade, even when he was playing his best golf. On the eve of the final round of the 2011 PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas, Na went to sleep tied for the lead. He was in his own bed, in his adopted hometown. His mom was staying with him for the week, cooking his favorite meals. And yet the nightmare returned. “I woke up that morning, and I was so pissed,” recalls Na. “Why then?”
Still he went out that Sunday and won his first Tour event, justifying the long, hard journey that began 10 years earlier, when he turned pro after his junior year of high school. Along the way there was a raft of top 10 finishes and the humiliation of carding a 16 on a hole—a duodecuple bogey that is a Tour record for futility on a par-4. You would think that the breakthrough in Vegas would have vanquished the nightmares, but Na is much too complicated for such a tidy resolution. Soon he had no relief even during waking hours.
Na had always been plagued by what he calls a “balk.” Well into his backswing, something wouldn’t feel right, so at the last millisecond he would swing over the ball. In golf, intent is everything, and because Na wasn’t trying to make contact, his whiff did not count as a stroke. It was merely the weirdest practice swing in the game. In the months after his victory, the balking increased, and at the 2012 Players Championship—the most overhyped, overexposed tournament of the year—Na’s issues became the fixation of the golf world. Now he couldn’t even take the club back, standing frozen over the ball for as long as 15 seconds. Then the damnedest thing happened—when he finally worked up the courage to pull the trigger, nearly every shot he hit was dreamy. He doesn’t hit the ball very far, but he’s deadly with his wedge and putter, and he fights for every stroke with an obsessive zeal. On one of the most intimidating courses in the world, he took the lead into the final round.
It was unsustainable, of course. On Sunday, Na bogeyed six of the first 13 holes and skidded to a tie for seventh. Immediately after that he felt pressured to revamp his preshot routine. He began rushing up to the ball and hitting it without so much as a waggle, like a more refined Happy Gilmore. “The whole idea was to not have any time for thoughts to creep in,” he says. He played the worst golf of his life, and by the end of the season the balk was back.
Since the meltdown at the Players, Na has remained an object of fascination and scorn. He quit Twitter at the end of 2012, driven away by the negativity. Charley Hoffman, who considers Na a friend, called in a rules official on Na after a balk at the ’13 McGladrey Classic. “Charley was saying, ‘I think that’s a whiff,'” Na says. “I go, ‘Buddy, c’mon. I’m a professional golfer, the ball is sitting on a tee, I have a huge driver in my hands, no way I’m gonna miss by four or five inches.’ It was weird.”
“It caught me off-guard,” says Hoffman. “When did he decide not to hit that ball? That was my question when I brought in the rules official. When do intent and nonintent stop and start? I wanted to know, because I felt an obligation to protect the field.” Hoffman adds a rueful coda: “I’m just glad I don’t have those problems.”
During the 2014 Memorial all the bad juju that swirls around Na affected him at the worst possible time. He had gone out early on Sunday and played brilliantly, shooting a bogey-free 64. Then Hideki Matsuyama stuffed his approach on 18, forcing a playoff. Matsuyama had the honors in sudden death and dumped his tee shot into a gaping fairway bunker, from where he faced an almighty struggle to salvage par. If Na could just drive it in the fairway he would be in a commanding position to get his second victory, at long last.
As tournament host Jack Nicklaus looked on, Na hit a dead-pull into a creek. “I haven’t told anyone this, but I rushed it,” he says. “My preshot routine was rushed, my swing was rushed, everything. The whole world was watching, and I didn’t want to be seen as that slow player. You know, There he is again, taking his sweet time, making us wait. It cost me the tournament.”
That was just more fodder for a nightmare that seemingly will never end. Beginning with a playoff loss at the Frys.com Open in October, Na blew three tournaments in a row on the closing holes, giving him 51 career top 10 finishes against the lone victory. Yet he remains strangely upbeat, and not just because he has $20.7 million in career earnings. “When I win a major championship,” he says, “all the near misses, all the struggles, all the disappointments—they’re all going to be worth it.” As he publicly battles his demons between the ropes, the windows to his soul encased in wraparound shades, Na has become the most compelling figure in golf. Says one sports psychologist who is a fixture on Tour, “I’ve wanted to work with him for years. If you could get Kevin Na’s mind right, that would be the golf equivalent of finding the Lindbergh baby.”
Na was born in Seoul, to a prominent family. His father, Yong-Hoon, was involved in real estate, while the family of his mother, Hye-Won, were academics. At age six Kevin got into competitive swimming. He medaled in various national competitions in the 50- and 100-meter backstroke, though he still has vivid memories of being terrified at his first meet, when the start position was higher than he was accustomed to. “My whole body was out of the water,” he says. “When I dove backward, it felt like I was falling and falling forever.”
When Kevin was eight his family moved to the U.S., ultimately settling in Diamond Bar, Calif., a bedroom community on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. He quickly became immersed in junior golf, spurred on by trying to beat his big brother, Austin, not to mention hotshot Anthony Kim. Kevin’s parents joined La Cañada Flintridge Country Club, where accuracy was critical on the tight fairways and small, sloping greens.
By his teens Kevin was, he says, “obsessed” with the game, and there’s some pride in his voice when he calls himself a “golf nerd.” On weekends he thought nothing of squeezing in 54 holes, and after school he would practice until sunset nearly every day. He refused to leave the range until he felt his swing was grooved, and he occasionally insisted that his dad park the car near the tee with the headlights on, so he could chase perfection in the dark. Those closest to Kevin were (and remain) puzzled by his fanaticism. “Ever since we started playing sports, Dad emphasized that the best talent any athlete can have is perseverance,” says Austin, who lives in Seoul and works as a Golf Channel commentator. “That’s what he felt separated athletes, not physical abilities. Kevin took that to heart, obviously.”
Defying the stereotype of the overbearing Korean golf dad, Yong-Hoon was a low-key presence in his son’s life but a master strategist in course management. Says Kevin, “We’d show up at a tournament, and he’d study the course and then say, ‘The par-5s aren’t reachable, so you should work on 100-yard wedges.’ Or, ‘The par-4s are long, so it would be a good idea to practice 50-foot lag putts.’ I learned how to think tactically at a young age.”
As Kevin piled up junior victories, other kids sought his counsel. He would always offer a favorite expression: “You have to live like a monk.” Recently he said, “I still say that. Back then it meant you had to shut out life. How much were you willing to sacrifice to be great? It meant cutting back on hobbies, not going on dates, not going out with friends on the weekend because you need that time to practice.”
It’s no surprise that Na never had a girlfriend in high school, but he did find a community in golf. He was the No. 1 player on the Diamond Bar High team from the time he was a freshman—relegating Austin, a senior, to No. 2. Their coach, David Hong, says, “The most memorable thing for me about Kevin was just how much he enjoyed being part of the team. You don’t always see that from a really exceptional player. But Kevin was so helpful on the range. He has a real intuition for the swing. As a freshman and sophomore he gave advice as good as any pro’s.”
By his junior year Kevin was the top-ranked amateur in the country and regularly cut class to play in mini-tour events across Southern California. (He registered under his mom’s maiden name, Chung, so as not to tip off the high school attendance office.) He Monday-qualified for the PGA Tour’s San Diego Open, posting 66 and then making a 35-footer on the first playoff hole. He missed the cut, shooting 75–70, but did not feel out of his depth.
Kevin left school for an independent studies program near the end of his junior year, in 2001, and he turned pro that summer. It might have seemed fanciful for a short, slight 17-year-old to embark on a pro career, but it made perfect sense to him. “I just loved golf,” Na says. “I wanted to chase a dream, and I wanted to get there quickly.”
He had the support of Don Brown, his swing coach then and now. “People said, ‘Oh, Kevin, you’re going to miss out on all the fun of being a senior in high school,'” Brown says, “but he never cared about any of that stuff. He had an obsession to be the best he could be. You think Hogan cared about the damn prom?”
With his ancestry Na knew that the Asian tour would be a welcoming place, so he began his career there. (Money wasn’t a problem; his paternal grandfather staked him $100,000 for expenses.) Sure enough, tournament invitations were plentiful and success came easily. Na finished second in his first event, the 2002 SK Telecom Open, and won his ninth start, the Volvo Masters of Asia, becoming the third-youngest champion in the tour’s history (19 years, three months). One of his mentors was Young Nam, who grew up in Southern California but became a mainstay on the Asian tour. “[Kevin] played with absolutely no fear,” says Nam. “Water down the left side, out-of-bounds down the right, everyone else is laying up with a hybrid, but Kevin would rip driver every time. Combine that with his incredible short game and he was very, very tough to beat.”
Na’s successful season in Asia earned him playing privileges on the European tour in 2003, and that apprenticeship helped him survive PGA Tour Q school at the end of the year. As the youngest player on Tour in ’04, Na recalls a lot of “star-struck moments,” but he proved he belonged. Still, he had trouble fitting in. He’s not a hunter or a fisherman, he has no college alma mater to cheer for, and he doesn’t really follow pro sports, so he had precious little to talk about with his colleagues. One Tour player describes Na as “socially awkward,” and Na admits that his single-minded pursuit has left him with a sense of otherness. “Looking back,” he says, “if I were to give advice to the 17-year-old me, I’d say go to college and have a little more fun.”
At the start of his sophomore year on Tour, in 2005, Na came to the final hole of the Tucson Open in a dogfight with Geoff Ogilvy and Mark Calcavecchia. “I was so nervous I couldn’t feel the club in my hands,” says Na, but he stuffed a 4-iron to three feet for a birdie. Calcavecchia bowed out on the first hole of sudden death, but Na poured in a 22-foot par putt to stay alive, and on the next hole he hit a terrific approach shot to five feet. Ogilvy faced a big-breaking, downhill 25-footer. “The mistake I made,” says Na, “was that I wasn’t prepared for him to make it. I was so young I didn’t know how to prepare my mind. Boom, he makes it, and it’s like, Now what do I do?” Na blew his putt.
“That damaged him mentally,” says Austin. “He would wake up in the middle of the night, reliving that putt. That was the beginning of the bad dreams. If he had won that tournament, maybe he’d be where Geoff Ogilvy is today.” That means he would be a U.S. Open champion, winner of eight Tour events and media darling.
Despite this and other heartbreaks, Na soldiered on. Making his way on Tour was complicated by his rep as a slow player, one of the more pejorative labels with which a pro can be saddled. Na’s plodding pace dates to the meticulous preparation he did with his father. “I was taught that you have to take in all the variables, you have to make practice swings to feel the shot,” he says. “Even in a practice round now, I can’t hit a shot without doing all that.” Still, Na says he has always tried to be considerate of his playing partners. “I’m pretty sure I’m the fastest walker on Tour, and my caddie gets to the ball before anyone. He’s waiting for me with the number, so when it’s my turn, I’m ready to go. I try, I really do.”
Na rose to a new level in 2009, amassing nine top 10s and banking $2.7 million to finish 19th on the money list. A yellow, drop-top Lamborghini became his ride of choice. (So much for living like a monk.) Na’s ascent of the money list bought him credibility with his peers. “You’ve got to give him some respect, he makes two, three million dollars every year,” says Tour veteran Scott Piercy. “He’s a grinder. The kid’s got a huge heart and a big head. He gets the most out of his game.”
But Na still couldn’t win, and it was becoming a thing. Whenever he was in contention, a good-news/bad-news stat would get trotted out: He was rapidly ascending the list of players who had won the most money without a victory in PGA Tour history. Besides his mental battles, Na was being held back by a longtime swing flaw, what in Tour parlance is known as “f—— the cow.” On the downswing his hips tended to slide toward the ball, leaving the club trapped behind his body, a position that can produce alarmingly wild shots. Worse still, for Na this bad habit was exacerbated by pressure. At the start of the 2011 season his swing was maddeningly inconsistent. Between a tie for fifth at the Hope and a third in L.A. he missed three straight cuts. He arrived at his second Masters feeling utterly lost.
Spraying the ball all over Augusta National during the practice rounds made things worse. On the day before the tournament began, Dale Lynch, a respected swing coach, was working the range when an intermediary told him that Na would like an audience. “That was interesting,” says Lynch, “because Kevin and I had never exchanged words.” Na asked Lynch for a detailed analysis of his swing. “I wasn’t sure if we were just talking or if he wanted a lesson,” says Lynch. “He kept asking questions, and I kept trying not to answer. Finally I said, ‘Kevin, the bloody Masters starts tomorrow—what are we doing here?’ It was the strangest experience of my career.”
Sensing Na’s desperation, Lynch offered a few thoughts and agreed to work with him more formally the following week, at the Texas Open. Na missed the cut at the Masters, but he was energized by having a new direction for his swing. “I was excited to get to San Antonio and start building some confidence,” he says.
In the days leading up to the Texas Open, at TPC San Antonio, Na committed to a series of major changes: At address he was less upright, his weight moved from his heels to his toes, and his swing plane was 30° steeper. “I was hitting it nicely,” he says, “but I felt very, very uncomfortable over the ball. My whole balance point had changed.” He got off to a good start, playing the first eight holes in one under par.
The 9th hole of the Oaks course is a straightaway 474-yard par-4 with a relatively narrow fairway. Na’s drive was a wild slice deep into the forest. He hit a provisional ball, yanking it far to the left. After an extensive search Na found his first ball, but it was in an unplayable lie. Since there was no decent spot within one club’s length to take a drop, he made the walk of shame back to the tee. Standing there, stewing, was the man who for so long haunted his nightmares, Ogilvy, along with Adam Scott and his caddie, Steve Williams, as well as Angel Cabrera, the brooding two-time major champion who is among the most intimidating men in golf.
On what was officially his third stroke, Na blew his ball right into the trees, dropping the club in disgust on the follow-through. He asked his caddie, Kenny Harms, for a ball, to hit another provisional. Harms fumbled it, and Cabrera kicked the ball across the tee box. “I like Ángel, and we get along,” says Harms, “but that was strange. I couldn’t tell if he was being playful or he was pissed.”
This provisional sailed far left of the fairway. Again Na was able to locate his first drive in the right trees, but it had settled on a rocky lie, surrounded by branches. Harms urged his man to declare another unplayable lie and return to the tee, to which Na said, “No way I’m going back there again.”
Na’s fourth shot ricocheted off a branch and hit him in the leg. With that penalty stroke he was lying five. Make that six, after a drop for an unplayable lie. The next shot doinked a tree and squirted deeper into the forest, hard against a tree trunk. Na tried to play his eighth shot lefthanded but whiffed, then moved the ball about a yard with his next lefty attempt. “It’s all a blur, because everything was happening really fast,” Na says. “There was definitely a panicky feeling, like, When is this going to end?”
His 10th shot advanced the ball maybe 10 yards closer to the fairway, but the 11th hit another tree, and the ball ricocheted deeper into the forest. On his 12th shot Na made clean contact and, at long last, got his ball into the rough. When he emerged from the thicket the crowd roared, and Na offered a beatific smile. This surprising good cheer endeared him to every hacker who has ever self-immolated on the course. “In some ways that was the best thing that ever happened to Kevin,” says Harms. “Before that he was never asked for autographs. Overnight it seemed like the whole world knew him and loved him.” And in a parable for us all, Na played the back nine in three under.
One of his good friends on Tour, James Hahn, thinks the sudden adulation stirred something deep inside of Na. “Kevin has always been very, very misunderstood,” says Hahn. “He wants to be liked. It feeds him. I’m sure he’s always thought about being on The Tonight Show or Conan—he’d love to be the good guy.”
Six months after the 16 in San Antonio, Na finally got his breakthrough win. Of course, with Na there’s always a hitch: He created a stir with a nationally televised balk during the third round. A bogey on the 14th hole on Sunday dropped him into a tie for lead, but Na responded with birdies at 15, 16 and 17. It was a clutch performance that he says came down to his state of mind. “My only thought the last four holes was to play aggressively,” Na says. “No fear. No doubt.”
With his victory Na punched his ticket to the 2012 season opener at the Tournament of Champions in Kapalua. He couldn’t help but feel he had finally arrived. It was a week for reflection and celebration, a well-deserved working vacation. But the Plantation course is built on the side of a mountain and is regularly buffeted by zephyrs. Na faced shots like a downhill, downwind 8-iron 210 yards over a canyon from an awkward stance. A pernicious doubt crept in, and he had trouble starting his swing. It was only a few seconds here and there, so it largely went unnoticed, but those moments filled Na with dread. He produced a second-round 64 to surge into contention but was shaky after that, particularly during the final round, before which he warned his playing partner, Bryce Molder, “I’m going to hustle to the ball as fast as I can, and I’m going to do everything I can to not get in your way, but I’m having some issues taking the club back.” Na closed with a 72 and faded to 12th.
Throughout the early part of the 2012 season Na accrued typically fine results—top fives at Phoenix, Pebble Beach and Bay Hill—but this new fear lived in him like a chronic illness. He would hit a bunch of good shots in a row and then suddenly freeze at address. “I was afraid to show up at a tournament,” he says. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to take the club back. I had worked really hard on my swing, and it was much better technically. But it was like I didn’t quite believe in it. It didn’t feel like it was mine. The setup didn’t feel natural.”
He returned to the Texas Open and, as a goof, took a chain saw to some of the trees that had tormented him, then played the 9th hole with only a 6-iron and made an easy 5. It was all good fun—until Na opened with a 79, his worst score of the season, and withdrew. At his next tournament, in Charlotte, he missed the cut. So Na’s confidence was in tatters when he arrived at the Players. On every swing a battle raged between his technical proficiency and mental fragility. He would stand over the ball, his mind jumbled with swing thoughts. His hands strangled the grip, his arms were knots of tension. The seconds would tick by, and he felt powerless to lift the club. Then the uncertainty would ebb just long enough to allow him to start his swing, and the resulting shot would be flawless.
Na opened with a 67, then followed with a 69 to share the lead. Over the first two days he received minimal notice from TV or the press, but playing in the final group on Saturday, he had nowhere to hide. Under the ratcheted-up pressure, Na’s tics increased. He waggled the club five, six, seven times. Unable to get comfortable, he backed off and started the tedious process again. And again. He stood over the ball, clenching and unclenching his jaw. “Pull the trigger!” he barked at one point. “C’mon, Kevin!” It was riveting theater.
Johnny Miller has always liked to work dark, and for a national TV audience the NBC analyst gleefully offered a guided tour of Na’s psyche. A tasty subplot began when Na was put on the clock after a slow-play warning on the 16th hole, forcing him to hustle through one of the most stressful finishing stretches in golf. Somehow he survived, shooting a bogeyless 68 to take sole possession of the lead. Afterward, for the first time that week, he was ushered into the lion’s den, the cavernous pressroom at TPC Sawgrass. The first questioner referred to his “psychological barrier” and asked, “What is it that’s going through your mind?”
Na opened a vein: “As ugly as it is and as painful as it is, believe me, it’s really tough for me. I’m trying.” Two dozen queries followed, and not one was about a specific shot. Na was pounded with questions about his mental scar tissue and his slow play. He had always cared a little too much what others thought about him, so that night he surfed Twitter (“There was a lot of cruelty,” he says), and his TV never left the Golf Channel. The consensus in the chattering class was that Na had no chance the next day.
“What happened Sunday was a reflection of what happened the night before,” says Harms. “All the negativity got to him.” Things went bad early: Na made a bogey from the middle of the 5th fairway. On the next tee a fan growled, “You better stop choking. I’ve got $2,000 on you.” On the 9th tee he was booed after he backed off his shot. So he backed off again. More boos. He backed off again. The boos got louder. Na bogeyed the par-5. At the par-3 13th, after he hit his tee shot in the water, fans sang, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.” On the tee of the 17th hole, with its terrifying island green, Na was at address when a fan shouted, “Pull the trigger, Na! Pull the trigger!” In this context, his 76 was remarkable.
“I’ve never seen [fan] behavior like that in our sport, before or since,” says Harms. “If that was a superstar, the PGA Tour wouldn’t have allowed that to happen, but Kevin didn’t have anybody to protect him. He was a sitting duck.”
The New York Times reported that by the time the round mercifully ended, “Na’s eyes were welling with tears.” Matt Kuchar, who was paired with Na, won the biggest tournament of his career, yet he was filled with sympathy. “You had to feel bad for him,” says Kuchar.
Na played the rest of the season in a rush, focused more on speeding up his preshot routine than on the swing itself. His results suffered accordingly. For years Harms and others had beseeched Na to work with a sports psychologist, but he had resisted. After the implosion at the Players, Na finally relented. He saw two shrinks but came away unimpressed. “They’re all Captain Obvious,” he says. “They tell you stuff you already know and then charge you $500. I’m better off figuring it out on my own.”
In 2013, Na got off to the worst start of his career. In April doctors instructed him to take six months off to treat bulging disks in his back. Not yet 30, he was being betrayed by his mind and his body.
Na retreated to Korea, to be with relatives and a large network of old friends. It was his first extended break from golf since he was a kid. A foodie and a dedicated chef, he went out every night for dinner, presiding over long, lively meals. “I had been so focused on golf, it was like I was catching up on 10 years of missed conversations,” he says. “For a while I forgot I was a pro golfer. There were other things to talk about.”
When Na returned to action in the fall of 2013, he was more at ease with himself, and it showed between the ropes. The excessive twitching was gone, and he no longer backed off the ball regularly. He estimated he was balking only once every two or three months. He piled up so many high finishes in ’14 that he ended the year 25th in the World Ranking. Phil Mickelson complimented him on his improved pace of play, as did Justin Rose after they were paired at the ’14 U.S. Open. “I enjoyed my couple of days with him,” says Rose. “He has done a great job integrating back into what is acceptable on Tour. He has to deal with a lot more than a lot of us do. But I think he is a tenacious player, and he goes about his business in a tough, competitive way.”
Na sees a double standard in that when other players struggle and play slower, it is excused as a bad day, but he is never shown the same courtesy. In September 2014, at the Deutsche Bank Championship, he and playing partners Adam Scott and Chris Kirk combined to make four bogeys and two doubles in the first five holes of their opening round. All of this bad golf took a long time, and they were out of position for much of the rest of the round. Na could sense that Steve Williams was stewing. The following day, as Na labored to a 74, he believed Williams was giving him the stink eye and says that at round’s end, the caddie avoided shaking his hand.
“In the scoring tent,” Na says, “as I was about to leave, Stevie looks at me and goes, ‘Do you ever watch a bad movie again and again?’ I didn’t really know what he was talking about, so I just said, ‘Uh, no.’ He goes, ‘That’s what you are, Kevin, a bad movie. I never want to see you play again.’ And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Stevie, you’re out of line. If Adam has a problem with my play, he has every right to say whatever he wants. You’re in no position to tell me what you just said to me.’ He got real close to me and was saying basically that he could say whatever he wanted. It was getting pretty heated, but one of the Tour officials stepped in and said, ‘Guys, not in here.’ And that ended it.” (Williams declined to comment.)
Na was shaken by the confrontation, and it coincided with some upheaval in his personal life. But early in 2015 he reunited with an old love, and he says he’s the happiest he’s ever been off the course. It showed in his play: In the spring he had three consecutive top 10s followed by a 12th at the Masters and a sixth at the Players that exorcised some of the bad memories.
Away from golf Na has an easy smile and a contagious laugh, but few of his colleagues had ever seen it. His grim, stoic on-course visage has finally begun to crack. His lifelong friend Young Nam says, “The real Kevin is finally starting to come out. Golf always meant so much to him, maybe too much. He put so much pressure on himself, it probably explains the problems he’s had. Now he’s more relaxed, more himself out there.”
At last year’s PGA Championship, Na approached Tiger Woods on the practice putting green and asked him to autograph a hat for Nam. Tiger knows Nam from junior golf and is well aware that he is a fixture in Korean tabloids for having romanced a well-known actress and a former Miss Korea, among others.
“Is Nam still getting a lot of ass?” Na recalls Woods asking.
Na replied that the hat was for Nam’s latest girlfriend.
That was an acceptable answer for Woods: “If it will help him get laid, I’ll do it.” The two cracked up, leaving the hundreds of fans surrounding the green to wonder what was so funny.
Na acknowledges that the waggles, the balks, the heckling and the 16 will always be a part of who he is as a player. “It’s still 5% in there,” he says, “but I feel more in control.”
Na is 49th on the Tour’s lifetime money list, and every player above him has multiple victories. Given his 51 career top 10s, it’s tempting to say he has massively underachieved. Then again, he’s a finesse player in an age of bombers, and considering all the demons he has battled, he might be the biggest overachiever in the sport. Last season Na was 159th on Tour in driving distance. That’s comparable to Zach Johnson, who was 148th. But one reason Johnson is most of the way to the Hall of Fame is that he rarely misses a fairway; he ranked eighth in driving accuracy, while Na was 84th. Says Harms, “As good as [Kevin’s] swing is, he should be top 10 in accuracy every year. His problems with the driver are more mental than physical. Once he learns to trust it, he’ll be fine.”
Harms, a Champions tour vet who has caddied for Raymond Floyd and Hale Irwin, believes in Na despite his myriad struggles. “I’ve seen most of the greatest players in the world up close, and trust me, [Kevin’s] a lot better than many guys who have won majors,” says Harms. “There are a lot of victories in his future.”
This faith was tested by the recent run of wasted opportunities. In the final round of the Frys.com Open in October, Na birdied five of the last 10 holes, including the par-5 72nd hole to force a playoff after he had hit a driver off the fairway for his second shot. On the second extra hole Na had the upper hand after he smoked a perfect drive and Tour rookie Emiliano Grillo drove into a bunker. But on his second shot—another driver off the deck—Na uncorked a drop-kicked snipe way left into the trees. He was on his way to a bogey when Grillo put him out of his misery with a victorious birdie putt. Afterward Na refused to second-guess himself, saying he would try the same play again in sudden death; this displayed either fortitude or delusion.
The following week, in Las Vegas, Na was tied for the lead with two holes to play but flubbed a chip on the 17th and lost to someone named Smylie Kaufman, who shot a closing 61. The week after that, at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, Na held the lead on the back nine on Sunday but came home with eight straight agonizing pars and got run over by Justin Thomas, who birdied three of the last four holes.
Na makes his 2016 debut this week in Hawaii. After three more blows to the solar plexus, does he still have faith that he will learn to win? “It’s coming,” he says resolutely.
Na can believe that because something profound has changed within him, and it happens in the dark. “I still dream about golf,” he says, “but in the last few months it’s different. Now, at the end of the dream, I’m winning.”