As Kevin Na fought his way to victory last week, he was in the midst of another contentious battle to save his name
It was the most unexpected victory celebration of a highly unorthodox career. In the moments after his rollercoaster playoff win last week in Las Vegas, Kevin Na kissed his wife Julianne, hugged his young daughter Sophia and then opened a vein. Standing on the 18th green of TPC Summerlin for the traditional champion’s interview with Golf Channel, Na called himself a “fighter” and “an underdog” in a voice thick with emotion. Then he said, “I’m going to say something in Korean, too.”
Na closed his eyes, threw back his head and let out a little whimper. Blinking back tears, he spoke for nearly a minute, an eternity for American fans to listen to a foreign tongue on live TV. There was heat in Na’s voice, and a couple of times he struggled to maintain his composure. Na was born in Korea but raised in the U.S., and he has long had a complicated relationship with the media in his homeland, which can skew critical of Korean-Americans. Later, in the winner’s press conference, he was asked about the remarks. “I just said it took a lot of hard work,” Na said. “I thanked the fans for believing in me, cheering for me. Just wanted to send a message back home.”
He left out some parts. In an inspired bit of hustle, golfchannel.com translated the comments that evening: “To my Korean fans, for always supporting and believing in me despite all these false rumors, I want to say thank you. No matter what anyone said about me, I have been very happy. So as I kept my mouth shut, I feel like I showed you my feelings with my clubs today. Even as I bit my tongue, I have gotten to this point. Thank you to my fans again, I will see you soon at the CJ Cup.”
Na declined further comment in Las Vegas when asked about the more complete translation. But now he has broken his silence in two exclusive interviews with GOLF.com. “I haven’t wanted to talk about all of this but it’s been bothering me for quite some time,” says Na, who is 36. “There have been too many rumors and false statements and it’s been very hurtful. Now I have a family” — the couple’s second child, Leo, was born six weeks ago — “and I feel I need to protect them and my name.”
At the heart of Na’s emotional public statement in Vegas is the lingering fallout from the broken engagement with a native Korean woman whose last name is Chung; her identity is a secret in the Korean press and Na declined to provide her first name, saying, “It’s part of what’s unfair about this situation — I’m a public figure and get no privacy while she gets to hide her identity. But I don’t want to reveal it because that would feel like a low blow.” They met in the spring of 2013 through a matchmaker and were engaged before year’s end. They were to be married in November 2014 but the relationship ended a month before the wedding.
In Korean culture, calling off a wedding is a big deal. In October 2014, Na was in Seoul to compete in the Korean Open. The families agreed to meet. It was supposed to be just the formerly-betrothed and their parents but the Chung family brought along a man described as an uncle who turned out to be their attorney, Sukhwa Lee. In Na’s mind the gathering was a respectful way to formally end the engagement and gain closure, but in his telling the Chung family was still trying to salvage the union by any means necessary. Says Na, “Her dad told me, If you don’t change your mind and marry my daughter I’m coming after you.” (Lee did not respond to an email from GOLF.com seeking comment.) Na was unmoved and the wedding remained off. Per the prevailing Korean custom, Na and Chung had already exchanged expensive gifts. He returned the watch and ring she had given him but says Chung kept her watch, on which he claims to have spent $100,000.
A couple of days later Na arrived at Woo Jeong Hills golf course for the first round of the Open. Awaiting was Chung’s mother, picketing the front entrance to the club with a sign that said, “American Golfer Na! Give back my daughter’s life as cleanly as you sent her stuff back.”
It got messier. Chung filed a lawsuit seeking compensatory damages from Na. The complaint included salacious details about the couple’s sex life, which received titillating coverage in the Korean tabloids. “The reason why my daughter publicly sued him was to prevent future victims,” Chung’s mother told reporters at the time. The Korean term for saving face is chae-myun. It is deeply ingrained in the culture. Being left at the altar by a golf star would be a profound loss of chae-myun.
According to Na, Chung never lived with him in Las Vegas but made three long visits during their engagement, each ranging from six to eight weeks. (In Korea it is traditional for children to live with their parents until they are married.) The Korean press has reported a judge ruled that based on the time Chung spent in Las Vegas she deserved the status of a “common-law wife” and was thus entitled to $400,000 of Na’s earnings. Na disputes these details, saying he wound up paying half of that and it was “mostly” to cover expenses the Chungs incurred related to the wedding and his then-fiancee’s airfare to and from Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Na countersued for defamation of character. It took years for the lawsuits to be adjudicated. “Not only did I win my suit,” Na says, “but she had to pay me close to $50,000, when a typical ruling in a defamation lawsuit is only a few hundred dollars. I think that shows the judge agreed how damaging the statements were.”
Against this unpleasant backdrop, Na finally found lasting love. He and Julianne had been friends for a decade and finally wed in 2015. Sophia was born the following year. For most of his career Na was famously haunted on the golf course, his demons manifested in nervous tics and so-called “balks” when he would be on the downswing but at the last millisecond purposefully miss the ball, the most unsettling practice swing in the game. But as his off-course life stabilized, Na finally blossomed as a player, winning at Greenbrier in 2018 — his second career victory and first in seven years — and then taking two more titles in 2019. He has ascended to 24th in the world and is a potential captain’s pick for Tiger Woods’ Presidents Cup team. Back in Korea, where most of Na’s family still lives, he has not received the favorable coverage he expected.
“Every time I win the old stories and details get dragged up again,” says Na, a naturalized American citizen who grew up in Southern California. “It feels like the media has been turned against me. They treat me like a foreigner.”
The tipping point for Na came last summer. He and his family were to be featured on a popular Korean reality show entitled A-Nae-Eui Mat, which translates literally to The Taste of a Wife. The show takes viewers inside the homes of athletes and entertainers. For four days and nights a camera crew followed the Nas’ every move. In August, commercials began running for the show and once again the Korean press surfaced the old sordid details from the lawsuit. Na says his ex’s father is a “well-connected” steel magnate and that Lee, the lawyer, enjoys a high profile in the media. “They said they were going to come after me and they obviously meant it,” he says.
Because of the latest spate of bad publicity the reality-show episode was spiked by the network, an insult and embarrassment to Na and his family. “For five years I had stayed silent,” he says. “The advice I was always given was just to play good golf and not focus on the nonsense and that’s what I did. But enough is enough.” On Aug. 7, Na released a statement to the Korean media telling his side of the story. Two days later Lee gave a bellicose interview in which he threatened more litigation against Na and to release a recording of the family meeting from five years earlier that he had secretly taped. All of this was swirling around Na’s psyche when the anguished words poured out of him in Las Vegas. “I hadn’t planned to say anything but I couldn’t help it,” he says. “I’m sorry I rambled on so long and confused all the viewers in the U.S.”
Now Na has returned to his homeland for the PGA Tour’s annual event there, the CJ Cup. Speaking by phone from Seoul, he sounded wary. “I love Korea and the fans over here,” he says. “I’m playing the best golf of my life. This should be a great week. But we’ll see how it goes. I just want the fans to get to know the real me. In some ways I feel like I’ve been forced to hide. I’m not doing that anymore.”
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