For so long, Tiger Woods made it look so easy. So much so, that every time a guy is in the lead on Sunday at a PGA Tour event we expect him to win, the way Woods did nearly every time, including on Oct. 6, 1996, when he beat Davis Love III in a playoff for his first career tour victory, at the Las Vegas Invitational.
Fast-forward 23 years to the day, same course, different sponsor, one fewer round, and there was Kevin Na, leading by four going into the back nine of the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, after shooting 62-61 the previous two days and mostly cruising around the front nine at TPC Summerlin in two under.
What could possibly go wrong?
If only winning was as easy as Woods made it look for so long. It’s not, even for the most hardened of players. That includes Na, who now has three wins in his last 30 starts after taking 369 to get his first and who this week broke the PGA Tour record for distance of putts made by more than seven feet with a total of 558 feet, 11 inches worth of putts—two stats that are almost as amazing as what happened down the stretch on Sunday.
After opening the day with a two-stroke advantage, Na, 36, arrived at the 10th tee feeling good about his prospects of winning. A four-shot cushion, a hot putter and playing well will do that.
Then, out of nowhere, a pull-hook driver into the thick rough. Things only got worse from there. Forced to lay up, Na then hit a pitch to the back pin that scooted just past the hole, and he watched helplessly as it tumbled down the slope and off the back. Rather than risk having his next chip roll back to his feet, Na over-corrected and sent his next shot rocketing 60 feet past the hole. Three putts later, he was in for triple bogey and his lead down to a single stroke.
The jolt was so jarring, it was like watching a boxer coasting through the first six rounds only to see him get caught off guard by a shot to the ribs that knocked his wind out.
Na, who considers himself a fighter—a worthy analogy given that he has overcome wearing a bulls-eye for slow play, driver yips and now a previously 0-for-3 record in playoffs—might have had his wind knocked out, but he wasn’t knocked out.
“As good as I was playing, there was no doubt I was going to win,” he said afterward. “Then all of sudden I walk out with a triple.
“It was hard to shake it off, but I made some great putts coming down the stretch.”
He needed every one of them. And the resiliency of a fighter, too.
After matching Patrick Cantlay with birdies on Nos. 12, 13 and 15 to keep a one-stroke lead, Na over-cut his 5-iron approach to the par-5 16th and watched in shock as his ball tumbled down the slope and into the water. One swing, two-shot swing, Na trailed by one.
The choking was just beginning, though.
One hole later, Cantlay, with a good bit of green right and/or long of the flag on the 175-yard par 3, inexplicably pulled his 9-iron and saw his ball bound into the water. Na then dumped his tee shot into the bunker on the right, leaving nothing but a downhill shot between him and the pond, but at least he wasn’t wet. Na pitched 20 feet past the flag then poured in the putt before letting out a fist pump that would have made Woods proud.
Tied going to the 72nd hole, Na missed the fairway right and missed the green to the right, too. He got up and down but the door was open for Cantlay, whose 24-footer curled toward the hole before somehow staying on the right edge. Playoff.
After each birdied the 18th on the first hole of overtime—with Na walking his in while it was still a couple of feet from the hole to extend the playoff—they played the same hole again. This time, Cantlay missed a five-footer for par after leaving his lengthy birdie putt short, and Na made his after gunning his birdie putt five feet past the hole.
“Experience,” Na said when asked how he was able to recover from his 10th hole follies. “I’ve been in this situation before where I lost the lead and I failed many times.
“I kept telling myself, This is the playoff I'm going to win.”