Kevin Na may be a high school dropout, but last Friday he earned
an honorary degree in self-reproach. "I can't believe how bad I
played," he said after shooting a 10-over-par 80 in the NEC
Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron. His struggles
were particularly acute on the 14th through 17th holes, which Na
played in a dismal nine over. "That has to be the worst four
holes in Tour history, right?" ...
... Not even close, but Na's exaggeration was easy to forgive.
Only 19, his pro career consists of a meager two dozen
tournaments, and his presence in the NEC's elite 85-man field
seemed odd, like a high school student popping up on the
nominees' list for the Nobel Prize. By Sunday, Na had reclaimed
most of his dignity as well as his status among golf cognoscenti
as the best under-20 player in the world. Adding rounds of 69
and 73 to his 71-80 start, he finished 71st in the no-cut event.
The jarring second-round score, though, again raised questions
about the wisdom of his turning pro at 17.
Only two years have passed since Na, then the top-ranked junior
player in the U.S., scandalized the sport by bypassing not only
college but also his senior year at Diamond Bar (Calif.) High. "I
really heard it from everybody--parents, coaches and even the
other kids," he says. "They said, 'What are you going to do if it
doesn't work out? You're not going to have anything to fall back
Unable to gain a foothold on a North American tour, Na began his
career on the Asian tour and, in only nine tournaments in 2002,
had five top 10 finishes, including a win at the season-ending
Volvo Masters of Asia, which carried an automatic exemption into
the NEC. This year, playing mostly on the European tour with
sponsors' exemptions, he led the Dubai Desert Classic after 57
holes before tying for fifth and has two other top 20 finishes,
having made the cut in all but one of his 12 starts. (Because he
is not a Euro tour member, his earnings of $217,620 are
unofficial and do not count toward a 2004 tour card.) "For a
19-year-old he's done very well," says Butch Harmon, Na's coach
since 2000, "especially when you consider how he's hopping
around, not having any exempt status in the U.S. or in Europe."
Yet despite his success and the promise of a bright future, Na
can't help second-guessing his decision to sacrifice the last
years of his youth.
Earlier this season, in a lounge at the Bellagio in Las Vegas,
where he was visiting Harmon, Na took a sip of his Coke and said,
"If another kid asked me, I would tell him, 'Don't do what I
did.' I really miss junior golf and all the fun we used to have.
On tour the competition is so tough, and the guys are so much
older than me. College would have been the easier route."
Glancing out at the casino floor and spotting his mother, Hye
Won, and father, Yong Hoon, who accompany him on tour, Na added,
"I'm pretty sure I would have had a better social life."
Na's might-have-beens have always been readily apparent because
his only sibling, 22-year-old Austin, did attend college,
graduating from UCLA in June with a degree in economics. Says
Austin, "When I'd tell [Kevin] about a girlfriend or about going
out clubbing, he'd ask, 'Is that fun?' And I'd say, 'Well, yeah!'"
The Na family left Seoul, where Yong Hoon had been a businessman,
for Los Angeles in 1991. Austin and Kevin jumped right into
Southern California's golf-crazed Korean-American community.
Kevin worked slavishly at improving. "He was one of the hardest
workers you'll ever find," says Brad Sherfy, Na's first
instructor and, at the time, the coach at UCLA. "Playing
professionally has been his goal forever."
By his sophomore and junior years in high school Kevin already
was fulfilling the promise implied by his Korean name, Sang Wook,
which means shining star. Playing mostly in top-tier national
events, he won about a quarter of the American Junior Golf
Association tournaments he entered. "Whenever he showed up, you
thought he had a pretty good chance to win," says another
19-year-old Tour pro, Ty Tryon, a frequent opponent of Na's. "I
wouldn't use the word dominant, but he was probably as close as
you can get in junior golf."
"He was a cut above most of the players his age or even older,"
says UNLV coach Dwaine Knight. "His game was already solid. He
had length, great fundamentals and the ability to go low, a rare
quality at that age."
The family had discussed a jump to the pros as early as Kevin's
sophomore year. (He has since received his general equivalency
diploma.) His father was eager and his mother apprehensive, with
Kevin somewhere in the middle. "I wanted to do it, but I had a
lot of what-ifs in the back of my mind," he says. Austin was the
swing vote. Already enrolled at UCLA, he believed school would
impede Kevin's progress as a golfer, and he didn't think Kevin
would miss the extracurriculars. "You have to understand that
Kevin is all business," Austin says. "Once, we went to a karaoke
club with some of my friends. You know how loud it is in those
places? Kevin fell asleep."
Also pivotal was the experience of playing in his first PGA Tour
event, the 2001 Buick Invitational, which he got into through a
Monday qualifier. Although he missed the cut by four strokes, Na
was anything but cowed by the competition. "I really watched how
those guys hit it on the range and on the course, and I wasn't
all that impressed," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Last week Na was equally blase, saying he was "not intimidated at
all" by playing partners Sergio Garcia, Ben Crane and Bob Burns.
(In last place on Saturday, Na played alone.) The exception was
Tiger Woods, whose presence on the range on the eve of the first
round reduced Na to the awestruck teenager he's not supposed to
be. Interrupting Tiger's communion with his practice balls, Na
first solicited a swing tip from Woods. That lasted about 40
seconds. Na then turned to Austin, who was nearby, grabbed a
souvenir flag that Austin was holding and asked Woods for an
autograph. (Tiger obliged.)
That breach of etiquette wasn't Na's only greenhorn mistake at
Firestone. The pins on the course might've been cut by the
Marquis de Sade, but Na consistently fired at them, so whenever
he missed a green he was almost always short-sided and facing an
impossible up and down. Slow play was also a problem. He was on
the clock by the 5th hole on Thursday, largely because he and
Yong Hoon, who doubles as his caddie, read the greens like
rabbinical students deciphering the mysteries of the Torah. After
Friday's disaster Kevin and his father, recognizing that they
were throwing away three or four shots a round, called a family
"It was pretty clear that if we are going to play tournaments
like this, we should get a professional caddie," Austin said.
"One of the reasons my father has always caddied was for
emotional support, but when Kevin started playing bad, he noticed
that my father looked disappointed, and that made things worse.
We also noticed how good all the other caddies were. I mean,
these guys have exact yardages. We thought, Maybe Kevin shouldn't
have to do all that stuff for himself."
Paying for a new looper shouldn't be a problem. In addition to
his earnings, which for the past year are more than $400,000, Na
has multiyear, six-figure endorsement deals with Titleist and
Korean apparel maker Elord. "And I have plenty of room left on my
shirt," Na says, jokingly pawing the empty billboard space on his
chest and sleeves.
The Nas will cut the on-course umbilical cord--"It's about time,"
says Harmon--this week in Munich at the BMW International Open,
the next-to-last event on Kevin's '03 European tour schedule.
He'll also play next month's Dunhill Championship and mix in two
or three events in Asia before returning to California to prepare
for his third crack at the PGA Tour's Q school. "That's the first
priority," says Kevin. "Asia and Europe have been great, but the
PGA Tour is where I want to be playing next year."
As he sat having lunch in the Firestone clubhouse after his
Sunday round and looked out the window at the more polished
players making their way to the 1st tee, it was clear that he had
found his time in Akron to be something less than a learning
experience. "I'm really disappointed," he said. "I didn't expect
to win, but I expected a lot more of myself." Did he take away
anything positive from the week? "I don't know. I guess I found
out that I need to work on my short game."
Clearly, school will be in session for quite some time.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA GROUP EFFORT Family members (from left) Austin, Kevin, Hye Won and Yong Hoon all have their roles on Team Na.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU GROWN-UP SWING Na (left, at the NEC) no longer looks--or dominates--as he did as a 12-year-old in Southern California.
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE NA FAMILY [See caption above]
"If another kid asked me," said Na, "I would tell him, 'Don't do
what I did.' I really miss junior golf and all the fun we used to