Matt Kuchar may be the Jimmy Stewart of golf, but beneath the perpetual smiles and aw-shucks disposition lays a steely competitor.
Just how tough was demonstrated on Sunday, when he overcome not just the usual barriers standing in the way to one of the game’s biggest prizes, The Players, but Kevin Na, too. Na, as the world has come to discover — to its horror — over the past few days, is quite the obstacle for his playing partners.
Na’s golf game is neurotic.
He takes countless practice swings and waggles, backs off time and again, and frequently admonishes himself to “Pull the trigger” when he can’t start his swing. It’s more disturbing than an episode of “Swamp People.”
Charles Barkley, owner of the world’s most abhorrent golf swing — which features an involuntary hitch on the downswing that often stops him from even hitting the ball — watched the weekend’s broadcast from TPC Sawgrass and proclaimed that “Kevin Na is my hero”.
“Welcome to my world,” Barkley wrote in a text message.
Kuchar, who at 33 entered the tournament with three career wins but is maturing as one of the game’s most consistent performers, was ready for Na.
“Not a whole lot gets under my skin,” Kuchar said. “Playing with a guy that may be a distraction, that’s not going to bother me.”
So it was, Kuchar settling himself after a nervous opening bogey to shoot a 2-under-par round of 70 to win by two strokes over a trio of players while Na — perhaps inevitably — imploded with a 76.
“Kevin is a great guy in the locker room,” Kuchar said. “He’s nice to everybody but he’s fighting some demons.
“It’s not an envious thing to go through. I’m glad it’s not happening to me.”
Kuchar said he was advised not to watch Na on Sunday afternoon.
“I think that’s like trying not to look at the leaderboard. You just have to,” he said. “You have to kind of watch Kevin Na, and then there’s also some audio included, as well, so even if you’re not watching, you can hear it.
“But I knew going in that that sort of thing wasn’t going to get the best of me.”
When Na’s antics first were featured on television, on Saturday, he quickly turned into the poster child for one of the scourges in golf: slow play.
Na knows he has a problem and says he’s trying to play faster. You felt for him when he poured his heart out and took responsibility for his inability to swing on command.
If that didn’t turn him into a sympathetic figure, then the obnoxious heckling he received on Sunday certainly should. Not since Colin Montgomerie was teased about his weight and frumpiness — “Mrs. Doubtfire,” they called him — have galleries been so brutal to a golfer.
When Na rinsed his tee shot on the par-3 13th — resulting in his second consecutive bogey — some were singing the famous, “Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye.”
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Na said. “I had a lot of people heckling me out there.
“Honestly, part of it, I deserve it. I mean, I’m being honest.
“But is it fair? No. You put an average guy in between those ropes, trust me, they won’t even pull it back.”
Na tried to keep up on Sunday, even sprinting to his ball to give himself extra time to go through his laborious routine. It clearly didn’t help him play his best to think about hurrying.
“Honestly, that’s my main thought, trying to play fast,” he said. “I know the whole world is watching. I’m trying to play as fast as I could.”
On the ninth hole, he backed off after hearing hecklers yelling for him to hit the shot.
“I backed off and they’re booing me. I said, ‘Look, guys, I backed off because of you guys,’” Na said. “I do need to work on my pre-shot routine. I do need to play faster.
“But the average golfer has no clue how much pressure we’re playing under and how tough it is and how much of a fight it is mentally. When I’m over the ball, it would be nice if it was quiet. But you can hear them talking, like, ‘Pull the trigger, pull the trigger, hit it’, which makes me back off even more.
“It was a rough day.”
After hearing Tiger Woods advocate an immediate one-shot penalty for falling behind, Na couldn’t have felt better.
He said he would try to eliminate the waggle from his pre-shot routine.
“But it’s going to take time, practice and tournaments, and I’m going to try to take out the whole waggle,” he said. “Honestly, it’s going to be a battle.”