Did Kevin Na Cost Zach Johnson the Players Championship?

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2012

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 13: Zach Johnson of the United States hits an approach shot on the 14th hole during the final round of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 13, 2012 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

You couldn’t watch Kevin Na play golf last weekend and not feel bad for the guy.

The poor fella was obviously struggling with some kind of mental block when it came to pulling the trigger and spent 10 hours on Saturday and Sunday attempting to fight off demons that had clearly taken hold of his game.

All the while Na was trying his hardest not to be an inconvenience to his playing partners.

“I know TV, Twitters and fans are tired of me backing off,” Na said after his round last Saturday. “But you know, I'm‑‑ 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.”

On Sunday Na made a visible effort to walk as fast as he could down the fairway—he was moving at just short of a jog—in order to get to his ball and give himself enough time to battle his demons and hit his shot while trying not to disrupt the flow of playing partner Matt Kuchar’s round.

If anything, Na probably gained more fans than he lost last weekend due to both his brutal honesty and self-deprecating humor about the matter.  

“It's usually a little waggle, half waggle, little waggle, half waggle, and boom, supposed to pull the triggers.” Na said on Saturday evening at TPC Sawgrass.

He continued:

But if it doesn't work, I've got to go in pairs. So it'll go four; and if it doesn't work, it'll go six; and after that, just ‑‑ there's a lot going on in my head.  And it's not‑‑ I'm not being nice to myself, trust me.  I'm ripping myself.

But despite Na’s inescapable likeability, at the end of the day his slow play was a distraction to his playing partners and he should have been penalized not once, not twice, but numerous times.

Na spent most of Saturday afternoon apologizing to his playing partner Zach Johnson for his slow play and inability to pull the trigger, and most observers knew that Na was indeed trying his best to overcome these demons.

However, the Players Championship is one of the biggest tournaments in all of golf with a winner’s prize of $1.7 million.

In addition, the winner is given a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, three-year exemptions into the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship and an exemption into the 2012 PGA Championship.

The Players Championship is not the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children’s Open. This tournament is just short of a major when it comes to all the perks associated with a victory.

The Tour put Na on the clock on Saturday and attempted to hit him with a one-stroke penalty on the 16th before Na appealed the penalty claiming his caddy was just moving out of the way. His appeal was later honored by the PGA Tour after reviewing video footage of the shot.

That being said, Na should have probably been put on the clock from the first hole and hit with numerous penalties throughout the day.

It took Na a couple of minutes just to get off the first tee box and another few minutes to hit his second shot into the green.

Tour pros are generally allowed 40 seconds to play a shot barring any unforeseen issues if they get out of position during their round.

Na was taking 40 seconds to simply decide on what club to hit on Saturday, followed by another minute worth of waggles, scolding himself, more waggles, a whiff, a few more waggles, before finally striking his shot.

It’s difficult to put an average time on Na’s shots, but one could certainly estimate that he was taking far longer than 40 seconds to play just about every shot he hit on Saturday.

All this while Johnson was being detrimentally affected by a pace of play that was far slower than allowed by the rules of the game.  

When asked about Na’s turtle-like routine on Sunday evening, Johnson responded by saying, “I don't know, I don't think it necessarily got to me. I mean, I was really focused on what I was trying to do and stay in the moment.  So I think I did a pretty good job of that yesterday quite frankly.”

Johnson, a constant gentleman, was perhaps being polite to a fellow competitor who was clearly struggling with the mental side of the game, or perhaps he has just played so many practice rounds with his good friend Ben Crane that he’s simply grown accustomed to that pace of play.

Either way, Na’s pace of play and shenanigans could not have been good for Johnson’s game and mindset on Saturday afternoon.

Who’s to say that Na’s slow play, which technically broke the rules of the game, didn’t cost Johnson the tournament on Saturday when Johnson carded a 73, which was his highest round of the tournament by three strokes?

Had it not been for Na, Johnson very well may have posted a 70 on Saturday and beaten out Kuchar by a stroke to capture his biggest title since winning the 2007 Masters.

Kuchar, Na’s playing partner on Sunday, did manage to tune Na out enough to capture the Players Championship title.

When it comes to slow play, the rules of golf are clear: A player out of position should take no more than 40 seconds over each shot as to not disrupt the pace of play for the rest of the field.

People often surmise that when the last group of the day is put on the clock it’s due to television commitments, but that is not the case.

Putting the last group of the day on the clock is basically a measure to protect the rest of the field. The reason being that one group should not be given the advantage of taking all the time in the world to play their shots while the rest of the field has to adhere to the pace of play rules.

Last weekend at TPC Sawgrass, the tour did not protect the rest of the field against Na and his incredibly slow pace of play.

That, to me, is unacceptable, particularly at the PGA Tour’s flagship event.

Na clearly should have been put on the clock for most of the day on Saturday and Johnson may have suffered the ultimate price for the tour's refusal to step in and not only protect Johnson, but the rest of the field.

For more golf news, insight and analysis, check out The Tour Report.


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