Much has happened since the 2011 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
Rory McIlroy has gone from can’t-miss prodigy to four-time major winner. The entire career arcs of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas have blossomed before our eyes. Tiger Woods has endured an almost unending tally of both ebbs and flows.
And through it all stood Kevin Na, racking up one six-figure check after the next while loitering on the edge of the upper echelon of the world rankings. All without ever winning a tournament.
Six times since his maiden PGA Tour win in Vegas in October 2011, which itself came eight years after he turned pro, Na has finished second. Two of those came in playoffs, and one was just earlier this year at Riviera. But facing a leaderboard filled with other players looking for a similar breakthrough, Na finally got hot at the right time and cruised to a five-shot win at The Greenbrier.
The emotions that swept across the 34-year-old in the minutes after signing his card erased any doubt about just how much ending The Drought meant to a player who often wears his emotions on his short sleeves.
“I tried not to think about winning. Obviously it seems like I’ve always tried too hard,” Na told reporters. “What is the difference, the fine line between trying too hard and letting it happen? Definitely thinking about that trophy. I was definitely thinking about winning, but I was trying to stay in the moment.”
As the social media age has erupted, Na has been the target of plenty of scorn. It’s hard to forget the 2012 Players Championship, where he struggled to even hit the ball off the tee while contending at one of the Tour’s biggest events, backing off multiple shots with an intentional walk-through over the ball that at times appeared more like a whiff.
For years he has been accurately labeled as one of the Tour’s slowest players, with that distinction coming more into focus recently as the issue of slow play has grown in stature. Four years ago at Bay Hill, the heckling from members of the gallery over his slow play reached the point that Na flagged down a rules official to intervene.
His name doesn’t bring with it star cache for equipment manufacturers, to the point that he ended his club deal with Titleist earlier this year without signing with another company. He also doesn’t have a hat deal at the moment, as he played Colonial in May with a visor he bought for $22 at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse.
The lid he won with Sunday, emblazoned with the letters “SO HI,” is a nod to his home course of Southern Highlands outside Las Vegas.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Na said. “Lot of close calls, lot of disappointments. I wasn’t sure if it was going to come again.”
Na is a classic example of a player with immense talent who has a tendency to fade when the lights are the brightest. His career earnings, now over $26 million since he joined the Tour in 2004, serve as a testament to his consistency and elite ability. But time and again, he seemed to make an untimely bogey or fail to convert a must-make putt coming down the stretch.
Sunday on The Old White TPC, Na left little to chance while leaving the field in his wake thanks to a two-hour stretch in the middle of the round during which he went unconscious on the greens. Six birdies in seven holes, including three makes from beyond 23 feet, turned a tight contest into a rout and allowed Na to coast to trophy No. 2.
Making the short walk to the green on the par-3 18th, Na was able to exhale. There would be no testing 10-footer, no overtime opponent to conquer. This time, the pieces fell into place for one of the Tour’s most consistent players who now, 158 starts after his maiden win in Vegas, no longer has to face questions about when his victory drought will come to an end.
“It’s indescribable. The amount of close calls I’ve had, and disappointments I’ve had. Walking off the 18th hole, in the locker room, on the drive back to the hotel. I mean, a lot of heartbreaks,” Na said. “But today, everything was going well. Everything was going my way, and it was nice to have that big lead going up the last hole and enjoying the moment. It was well worth it.”