Exactly how sorry should we feel for Kevin Na?

Jay Busbee

We all know that tired-but-still-true adage about golf being played on the few inches between your ears. And for players who struggle with the mental side of the game, there must be no more terrifying feeling than to have that internal struggle splayed out across the planet, your insecurities and crutches laid bare for the world to see.

Kevin Na has been more of a punchline than a subject of reverence around these parts, whether for his scientifically-proven slow play or his occasional double-digit hole scores. But once he took the lead on Saturday at The Players, his ridiculously slow play became the story ... as did the apparent reasons for that slow play.

[Related: Winners and losers from The Players Championship]

Na, you see, can't get out of his own way. He waggles, twitches and fidgets to steady his mind, like a dog twirling around on a blanket to get comfortable. And if anything in the sequence comes off the track, he takes a practice swing right over the top of the ball, surely horrifying practice-like-you-play instructors everywhere, and starts the entire process all over again. And that, of course, leads to agonizingly long seconds on the tee or over the putt.

"I'm not being nice to myself, trust me," Na said after Saturday's round. "I'm ripping myself. But, you know, there's so much on the line that I just have to sometimes back off. Or I'll force myself to take it back, and on the way down I'll come up and pull up and go over the top. As ugly as it is and as painful as it is, believe me, it's really tough for me, and I'm trying."

Makes you feel a little bad for the guy, doesn't it? Apparently not enough to keep the hecklers from lighting into Na. Shouts of "hit it!" were audible throughout the course, and as you'd expect, they wormed their way right into his skull.

"You know, when I'm over the ball, it would be nice if it was quiet," Na said. "But ... you can hear them talking, like 'pull the trigger, pull the trigger,' 'hit it,' which makes me back off even more. So that part was a bit tough."

Na responded by speeding up as much as he could. "My main thought was trying to play fast," he said. "I know the whole world is watching. I'm trying to play as fast as I could. I was 40 yards ahead of Matt basically trying to sprint out to my ball so I can get to extra time." The result? An ugly 76 that took him out of the mix entirely.

[Related: Players winner Matt Kuchar hasn't stopped smiling through ups and downs]

In the end, though, Na was contemplative, understanding of what he needs to do to lead on a Sunday, not just a Saturday: "I do need to work on my pre‑shot routine," he said. "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 for it it is mentally. I honestly think with all that going on, I did pretty well fighting. I had a good fight."

Question is, where's our responsibility as fans of the game? Na's slow play is ridiculous, but does the fact that it has its roots in a very real mental preparation make it any better or more acceptable? It's worth noting that every single player faces the exact same pressure as Na, and many, like Rickie Fowler, have no problem stepping up and hitting the ball virtually in stride as they walk up the fairway. Others, like Tiger Woods on Sunday, have said that slow play ought to be an automatic one-stroke penalty, no warning.

[Related: Rickie Fowler shows he may just be the real deal with strong Players showing]

Here's a thought: much like a regular round of golf, we'll put Na on the editorial clock. We'll give him this tournament, understanding exactly how tough it is to play at the highest level (intellectually if not literally). But it's time for him to begin redirecting that energy, both for the good of the game and the good of his own performance. The last thing we need is any more galleries singing "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye."

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