photo courtesy of the Asian Tour
Kevin Na is an enigma to most golf fans. On the one hand he is clearly talented, though Na has long been plagued by mental issues that have derailed his chances in tournaments multiple times. However, it appears he has put this period behind himself as he has seen his status and winnings rise in the past 2 years. Na's career is unique, taking a road largely untrod and showing the mental challenges of being a PGA Tour stalwart.
Kevin Na was born Na Sang-uk in Seoul, South Korea on September 15, 1983, the second son of successful parents. When Na was 8 years old, he moved with his family to Diamond Bar, California where later he would become a naturalized U.S. citizen. As Na adjusted to his new home, he soon became enamored with golf. By his teens, Na practiced daily and routinely played 2-3 rounds of golf each weekend at La Cañada Flintridge Country Club. It was that obsessive drive that led to Na becoming one of the best youth golfers in America. Kevin’s brother Austin, also a skilled golfer who works as a Golf Channel commentator in Korea, explained to Golf magazine that Na took his cue from their father, who “emphasized that the best talent any athlete can have is perseverance.” Na also credits his father with instilling a tactical side of his game, something that Na continues to use to compensate for his lack of driving distance.
Na continued to win junior tournaments and was soon ranked the top American amateur at 16. Na then began attempting to play professional events through Monday qualifying, with the highlight being qualifying for San Diego Open on the PGA Tour. After this experience, Na began to explore the possibility of turning professional. Finally at 17, Na decided to make the jump to the professional ranks.
Na began playing in some mini tour events and work on Monday qualifying, but after a year roaming around North America, Na decided to try his hand on the Asian Tour. immediately turned heads on the tour by finishing second in the 2002 SK Telecom, his first Asian Tour event as a professional. He achieved his first professional win at the 2002 Volvo Masters of Asia at the age of 19 in just his 9th Asian Tour event. Na used the experience to begin playing on the European Tour in 2003 and was again turning heads. By the end of 2003, Na was confident enough to return home and attempt to gain his PGA Tour Card through the Q-School. A strong performance saw Na earn his Tour Card for 2004, where he became the youngest player on the Tour.
Na after winning his first professional event at age 19. photo courtesy of the Asian Tour
It was during his transition to the PGA Tour that Na began to let doubts creep into his game. He credits his playoff loss at the 2005 Tuscon Open with Geoff Ogilvy and Mark Calcavecchia in his second year on the Tour with starting his mental struggles. In the playoff, Na flubbed a 5 foot putt to hand the win to Ogilvy, a mistake that resulted in literal nightmares for years. This led to Na being labeled as a bottler and results seemed to confirm that. Over the following years, Na kept amassing top-10s but without a single win. He was soon one of the highest earning players to never have won an event. The pressure seemed to get to him as his play became erratic.
Na’s mental issues were confounded by his pre-shot ritual. Na was already a fairly slow player, though he is quick to point out that he makes up for this by nearly running to take his next shot, but the mental issues made him even slower. Na became known for “balking”, where he would take his backswing only to swing inches above the ball--which doesn’t count as a stroke as he made no intention to play the ball. Na states that if he felt something wrong he couldn't follow through with his swing, admitting that the issue was all in his head. This in turn led to wildly inconsistent play, typified by his 16 shot meltdown a par-4 at the 2011 Valero Texas Open, still the worst score carded on a par-4 in the history of the PGA Tour.
Na would later return on the invitation of the course to personally cut down the tree that cost him so many strokes. photo courtesy PGA Tour
In Na’s 211th start, he finally was able to get over the hump and score his first PGA Tour victory. Despite negative attention for his continued balking, Na would finally hold his nerve to claim the 2011 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. Na continued to play consistently, routinely ranking around the top-25 in money leaders. However, by 2013 old demons seemed to be returning as Na again dealt with increased balking, drawing the ire of Adam Scott’s caddy who once told Na in 2014 that “I never want to see you play again” after Scott was paired with Na.
Na with his first PGA Tour win. photo courtesy of the PGA Tour
Injury and mental issues meant Na had to wait nearly 7 years to claim his second win at the 2018 Military Tribute at The Greenbrier. He would then win his 3rd and 4th PGA Tour all in a 15 month span, showing that Na appears to have finally put his problems to bed. His consistency has seen Na rise to number 28 in the Official World Golf Rankings and he is currently number 30 on the PGA Tour’s all-time money list, a remarkable achievement for any golfer. Time will tell if Na will fully achieve his potential and join the pantheon of golf’s greatest players. If recent history is anything to go by, Na should have plenty more victories in store.