Kevin Na’s reputation as a golfer since turning pro at 17 is all over the map, but now that the pressure to win has been relieved, he’s ready to let the good times roll.
By Jim Dover
Do a Google search of Kevin Na and the first page is dominated by the 16 he recorded on a par 4 at last year’s Valero Texas Open. There also are a couple of references about allegedly whiffing on a tee shot in a tournament that didn’t count as a stroke, and Na’s reputation for slow play is available for viewing by scrolling down a little further.
Not exactly a good first impression.
But there’s more to Kevin Na than meets the eye, or at least his status on social media sites. Na, who was born in South Korea and moved to the United States at age 8, acknowledges the critiques and says he is trying to speed up his play. But regarding that not-so-sweet 16? “I think it will stay with me for the rest of my career,” he said.
How his career moves forward as he approaches 30 is something he can control. Na, who grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, hopes to build on his victory at last year’s Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in his hometown of Las Vegas as a springboard to more success. Now in his seventh year as a full-time member on the PGA Tour, Na seems poised to do just that. And if he can win more events and show galleries that he’s a personable guy, all the better.
“I’m a lot more relaxed now than when I first came out on tour and I think the fans are starting to see that,” Na said as he prepared to play in last month’s Humana Challenge in La Quinta. Here are some other things he had to say:
Your win last year got you into the Tournament of Champions. Does that early tournament give you any advantage over other players starting the year?
Definitely, because you get four rounds of competition. All the guys are rusty when you’re coming out and I played well in the second round, shooting a 64, and it was nice to get those four rounds in although I didn’t play well at the Sony, I think mainly because of the Monday finish the week before.
What were your feelings playing that first event at Kapalua? Was there a sense of accomplishment or were you in your normal tournament mode of trying to win?
When I got there it was such a beautiful place and you get a sense that you’ve earned it and it really feels great. Then you realize there are just 27 players in the field. It does give a feeling of having a better chance of winning. All in all, it was a good week.
Your win last year at Las Vegas looked satisfying and a bit of a relief. Looking back, what do you remember most about the victory?
It still feels great. I get a little better tee times and the feeling of being a winner on Tour is just a great feeling. When I teed it up on Maui and they announce ‘Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children champion,’ it’s a great feeling and it makes you want to have more.
It must have been gratifying to win a tournament on your home turf. How close is the pro golfing community in Las Vegas?
I play practice rounds with the Vegas guys for sure. Nick (Watney) lives in Henderson so I don’t see him as much as I would see someone like Charlie Hoffman, who lives in Las Vegas.
One of the by-products of winning is we get to see your personality more. I think fans were surprised with your humor and how personable you are on camera. Can it be frustrating not to get that chance to show the public who you really are?
No, not really. I felt like I was always known as the guy who was the next guy to win or break through. I felt like I was always known as the guy with good career winnings, but without a win. I’m a lot more relaxed now than when I first came out on tour and I think the fans are starting to see that.
You have also been dubbed a slow player. Is that type of label hard to shake?
People don’t realize that I have gotten better and I am really trying to play faster. Sometimes I still have to take my time, and if I take my time on one shot I don’t really think that means you’re a slow player.
How important is it for you to get that second win?
I can’t wait to win again and I think I will. I’m hitting the ball well and I think because I’ve won now, I know what comes with it and that makes me want it even more.
You’re one of those players that can get on a roll and shoot really low to either jump start your tournament or save it. Can that hurt you at times, sometimes banking on a low round if you shoot an average round the day before?
I actually think every tour player has the ability to go low on any given day. I have been fortunate to have some pretty low rounds in my career and I think at times I can be a pretty good putter, and when you catch fire that’s when you get the really low numbers.
Looking at your career starts, one of the biggest things that jumps out is how many tournaments you play a year. Your first full year in 2004 was over 30 tournaments.
Thirty-two. I actually did plan that and I only played over 30 tournaments my first two years because I wanted to see which golf courses suited me. The last three years I’m down to 26 tournaments. Now, I know I can choose where to go.
How hard is it to say no to a particular tournament?
You can’t play every tournament. And while I love the West Coast Swing I’m not playing Torrey Pines because I haven’t had success there and that’s just a natural week to take off.
What other California stops are you playing besides the Humana Challenge?
I’m not playing Torrey Pines and I don’t believe I’m going to play Pebble Beach. I’m playing the Northern Trust and absolutely love playing Riviera. That was the tournament I watched as a fan when I was 10 years old. I really would like to win there.
Even with your success, the 16 you had on one hole at the Valero Texas Open is the first thing that comes up on your Google search. You’ve done a great job of embracing it, but are you ready for it to go away?
I think it will stay with me for the rest of my career. There’s nothing really wrong about it, because people can really relate to that. People forget the next week I played I finished top 10.
KEVIN NA: FYI
BIRTHPLACE: Seoul, South Korea.
RESIDENCE: Las Vegas.
TURNED PRO: 2001.
PGA TOUR VICTORIES: Justin Timerblake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, 2011.
PGA TOUR TOP 10s: 29.
OTHER PROFESSIONAL VICTORIES: Volvo Masters of Asia, 2002; Long Beach Open, 2002; Nationwide Tour’s MarkChristopher Charity Classic, 2006.
CAREER EARNINGS: Nearly $12 million.
EDUCATION: Attended Diamond Bar High School near where he grew up in Rancho Cucamonga; bypassed senior year and skipped college to turn pro at age 17.
MISCELLANEOUS: Became a U.S. citizen at 18.
TWITTER HANDLE: @TheKevinNa.
TWITTER FOLLOWERS: Nearly 8,000.
Welcome! Log into your account
Recover your password
A password will be e-mailed to you.