Na battles mind games, demons at TPC

That golf is a game that demands controlling dark inner demons as much as a little white ball has never been truer than it was in watching Kevin Na take the third-round lead at The Players on Saturday.

To put it mildly, it’s painful watching Na play golf.

Fingernails-down-a-chalkboard annoying.

In baseball, balks are penalized. But in golf it’s merely bad etiquette for a player to take countless practice swings and waggles, back off several times and even take air swings — swinging over the ball, like a false start, on the downswing — only to begin the entire tortured process all over again.

“We hear guys talking about needing swing coaches, sports psychologists, fitness instructors or changing managers,” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee.

“He needs an exorcist. I half expect winged bulls to fly out of his head when he is standing over a shot.

“I’m not sure if Sigmund Freud were alive he could figure this one out.”

And so it was both bizarre and commendable that Na somehow overcame not just a brutal golf course in TPC Sawgrass but the slamming doors in his head to shoot a bogey-free 68 and take a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar into Sunday.

Tiger Woods shot a third-round 72, with two birdies and two bogeys, and is out of contention, 10 shots off lead.

“I know it’s frustrating for (people to watch), but it’s really frustrating for me, I’m screaming at myself to pull the trigger,” Na said.

His routine is supposed to be taking a little waggle and then taking the club half-way back, repeating that pattern once and then pulling the trigger.

It’s a long routine in itself, except it’s rarely that short for Na.

“There’s this timing, and if I miss that timing, then I have to start over. And I’ve got to do it in pairs, as crazy as it sounds,” he said.

Sometimes he eventually swings only because he feels he’s taken so long, he can’t possibly delay the swing for one more second.

“I almost feel like I’m cornered as I know I can’t back off again,” he said.

For most of those who have to watch him — or, heaven forbid, play alongside him — it’s easy to paint Na as the bad guy: as a selfish player who doesn’t care how long he takes or how much he makes life intolerable for other players.

But in talking to Na after his round, it’s clear he’s a conflicted 28-year-old who’s not afraid to laugh at his foibles and at least says he’s trying his best to get better.

“There’s a lot going on in my head,” he said with a laugh.

“And I’m not being nice to myself, trust me. I’m ripping myself. As ugly as it is and painful as it is, believe me, it’s really tough for me, and I’m trying.”

Beyond himself, the golf course and the magnitude of the moment — he’s only won once before on the PGA Tour — Na on Saturday was put on the clock for slow play.

Obviously, given how glacial he is in playing, it wasn’t his first.

But given the situation — a second “bad time” would’ve resulted in a one shot penalty (a penalty that, admittedly, hasn’t been assessed since the ’80s) — it rattled him.

“You have to hit a shot within 40 seconds, so there’s more added pressure,” he said, “and only the whole world is watching, so there’s a lot more pressure there, too.

“It’s pretty high-stress.”

Na said he began having the stuttering problems when he changed his swing with Australian coach Dale Lynch last year. He feels so uncomfortable over the ball, he can’t take the club back.

And it’s not just in tournaments.

“I whiff it in practice rounds, I back off, it’s the same thing. I do it on the range, too,” he said.

“Guys that play with me, they kind of laugh, and the guys that haven’t played with me, their eyes get about this big.”

Na’s regular practice partner, Korean Sung Kang, still can’t believe the drama.

“He tells me, ‘Bro, I don’t know how you do it.’ ”

Na, who’s taken American citizenship and is eligible for the US Ryder Cup team — what a weapon to unleash on the Europeans! — said there was only one player who could understand his struggle.

“I think the only guy that would really understand is Sergio (Garcia) if I played with him because he’s gone through it,” he said.

About a decade ago, Garcia gripped and re-gripped his club sometimes 50 times before finally starting his swing. He was mercilessly heckled by the New York crowds at the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black.

Na hopes it won’t get to that with him.

He hopes he’ll be better by the end of the year.

But in the meantime, there’s Sunday’s final round.

“Just bear with me,” he said, “And hopefully we get that tomorrow round in.”