Struggling Na closes with birdie to seize Players lead

13 May 2012 00:46

A tense Kevin Na curled in a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to grab a one-stroke lead over Matt Kuchar after Saturday's third round of the $9.5 million Players Championship.

The 28-year-old American of Korean heritage, nagged by swing issues that saw him waggle and hesitate before hitting shots, fought through for a bogey-free four-under par 68 to stand on 12-under 204 after 54 holes at the US PGA event.

"Because I change my balance there is a lot going on," Na said. "It's a tough situation. I'm working on it. I'm trying. It's getting better little by little. Hopefully it will go away by the end of the year."

Kuchar found the water off the tee at the island-green 17th hole but salvaged a bogey and then sank a 12-foot par putt at 18 to remain within one stroke of his compatriot entering the final round at the TPC at Sawgrass.

"To make that, get up and down for bogey at 17 and save that at 18, was really big," Kuchar said. "Exciting position to be in. I feel like my game is evolving and I have a real chance to win."

Na's troubles were typified at the 14th tee where he hesitated, made a complete swing well above the ball, began another swing only to stop and yell at himself, then finally smashed the ball deftly into the fairway.

Adding to the pressure was the fact that Na was put on the clock by tournament officials on the back nine and given a time warning for slow play with another bringing a one-shot penalty.

"When I back off, I know it's frustrating," Na said. "I'm screaming at myself to pull the trigger. All I can do is what's best for me and do what I can. I just have to forget it when I back off.

"At times I feel like I'm cornered -- I can't back off again."

But on a windy day, Na was one of only three players not to make a bogey. He birdied the par-3 third, par-4 12th and sank a 10-foot birdie putt at the 16th to grab a share of the lead just moments after Kuchar bogeyed 17.

That set up Na's closing birdie and set the stage for a tense duel on Sunday.

"You have to put that (stroke hesitation) aside and play your game," Na said. "I have to take all the things I have learned and play my best."

Kuchar led Na by two strokes at the 17th tee but chunked his shot short of the green. He put his second try four feet from the cup and made the bogey putt. At 18 he went up and down from a pot bunker for par and a round of 69.

"It was tough. The course is hard out there," Kuchar said. "A 69 is good playing. It's tricky out there if you get in the rough. Fortunately I hit it pretty well and got around in 69."

Kuchar birdied the second and took a bogey at the fourth but then ran off a streak of three birdies in a row starting at the par-3 eighth.

He took a bogey at the par-5 11th, made another birdie at the 12th and sank a six-foot birdie putt at the par-3 13th to stretch his lead to three strokes. He took a bogey at 14 and birdied 15 before a par at 16 ended a roller-coaster run of eight holes without a par.

American Rickie Fowler, coming off a win last week at Quail Hollow, charged into third on 207 with a 66. Americans Ben Curtis and Zach Johnson shared fifth on 209.

Fowler, who began the day five strokes off the lead, made an early charge with birdies at the par-5 second, par-3 third and par-4 fifth.

"I felt really good, got things going and had a good round," Fowler said.

Fowler, who won last week at Quail Hollow, is trying to become the first US PGA back-to-back winner since Tiger Woods in 2009.

"It gave me a lot of confidence coming into the Players," Fowler said.

Only three players have won the Players after a victory the week before -- Woods in 2001, Tom Kite in 1989 and Ray Floyd in 1981.

"I am one of the ones under the least amount of pressure," Fowler said. "Nobody expects me to win back-to-back. So I'll just come out tomorrow and see what happens."

Woods, a 14-time major winner who has struggled since winning at Bay Hill in March, fired a par-72 to stand on 214, taking bogeys at the par-4 seventh and 10th holes before answering with birdies at the 11th and par-3 13th.

"I figured if I shot 68 or 67 I would be right there in the ball game going into tomorrow," Woods said. "There's so much danger out there. You can shoot 65 out there but you can also shoot 80 too."