Exclusive: Fast approaching $20 million mark, Kevin Na says the best has yet to come

March 19, 2015
Kevin Na hits from the rough along the 11th hole during the first round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament, Thursday, March 12, 2015, at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Kevin Na hits from the rough along the 11th hole during the first round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament, Thursday, March 12, 2015, at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

By Brian Han

It’s not often you see a professional golfer of Korean descent holding up a trophy on the PGA Tour. In fact, it’s tough to even catch a glimpse of the 11 players who fit into this category because they’re seldom featured on television.

Professional golfer Kevin Na is looking to change that by quietly maintaining his status as the best Korean and Asian American player on tour.

He is the highest ranked at 25th in the world with Bae Sang-moon next on the list at 79th. Na has won over $17 million over the course of his professional career second only to pioneer K.J. Choi, 44, who was the first Korean player to earn a PGA Tour card back in 2000.

Statistically speaking, he’s only getting better as long as he stays healthy.

But despite his consistent level of play, Na claimed his one and only victory on the PGA Tour in 2011.

“I think I’ve had a pretty successful career and I’m grateful for it, but honestly having just one win bothers me,” he told The Korea Times. “The way I look at it is I’m only 31-years-old and most players start peaking in their 30s. I feel like this is my time and I’m working hard to improve so that I can win a lot more tournaments.”

If an athlete in any other sport said those words, you would call them delusional.

In golf, it’s a bit of a different story.

Take for example Bubba Watson or Jimmy Walker who are both on every true golf fan’s radar.

Watson didn’t win a PGA Tour event until he turned 31 in 2010 and he had been playing professionally for seven years before that. Since then, something clicked and he’s picked up six more trophies and two green jackets along the way.

36-year-old Walker played professionally for 12 years before he won his first PGA tournament in 2013 and in that same season he claimed two more victories.

Na is on the cusp. In the 2014 season, he recorded six top-10s, two of which were second place finishes. His current season has shown similar promise with almost $1 million in earnings and a second place finish.

Kevin Na, left, and fellow Korean American PGA Tour golfer John Huh are close friends and practice together often. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Kevin Na, left, and fellow Korean American PGA Tour golfer John Huh are close friends and practice together often. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Much of his consistency has to do with becoming comfortable with his own identity as a player.

The current trend on tour is distance before accuracy and it gets even the best of players including Tiger Woods who arguably placed distance ahead of his own health.

“I’ve felt the pressure,” Na said. “The most basic way to put it is I’ve tried to hit it further and failed. It wasn’t my style of game and I realized that I shouldn’t try to change my approach, but concentrate more on what I’m good at and have a style of game that works for me.”

The stats back up his philosophy. Although his driving distance is below average, his short game is impeccable and his long irons into the green are more accurate than most.

Na is sharpening his strengths and molding himself into something unique.

On the flip side of the coin, his identity as a Korean American can sometimes present precarious situations.

“There’s a connection among the Korean players on tour that goes beyond golf,” Na recalls. “It doesn’t matter if a Korean American or a Korean plays well, it’s great to see it either way. But sometimes Korean viewers see us as American and the American viewers see us as Korean or neither.”

It can be hard to grasp onto a cultural identity in the professional golfing landscape, but Na knows exactly how to define himself.

“We’re Korean American,” the Seoul-born golfer said. “We came to America, we adopted this place as a home, but at the same time we can’t disregard our heritage. I love my Korean heritage, the food, the music. I’m proud. But I’m also proud to be an American because I grew up here in the states. This is my home.”

It’s a phenomenon that extends beyond the game and makes it difficult to feel a sense of belonging to any particular community.

To top it all off, golf can be quite a lonely sport, but Na still finds support wherever he goes.

"This game it can be so fun and so great and so exciting, but some days it's miserable because it's so stressful," Na said. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Douglas R. Clifford)

“This game it can be so fun and so great and so exciting, but some days it’s miserable because it’s so stressful,” Na said. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Douglas R. Clifford)

“Whatever city I’m at there are Korean fans out cheering for Korean players,” he said. “It’s nice, they speak English and Korean, you feel this connection and they’re pulling for you.”

Often traveling for thousands of miles for competition year-round, players can find comfort and familiarity in the crowds.

“The ajummas always have positive energy and they come out and shake your hand or hug you,” Na said. “Especially during my first years on tour, I viewed them as moms or aunts and felt very comfortable around them.”

Now that he’s more of an established player, Na has found ways to give back and sometimes it requires more effort than he could have imagined.

“There’s this one family in Milwaukee where I used to play every year and they would invite me to dinner,” he said. “I went there for years and the husband said, ‘Kevin, there’s one wish I have. I’ve always dreamed of going to the Masters.’ I didn’t realize that they’re the most difficult tickets to come by in any sport, but I made sure that when I played in my first Masters in 2010, I had two tickets waiting for him. I kept my promise and we’ll both remember that for the rest of our lives.”

It’s no secret that many Koreans are obsessed with golf and if the Korean players start excelling, many fans will surely follow if they aren’t already.

For now, a lot of the attention is on the LPGA where Korean players are dominating.

“People want to see their country win and see champions,” Na said. “On the LPGA, players are giving them that show and currently, the men are not. The competition is a lot different and I hope viewers know that and see that. If a fellow Korean player finishes within the top-5 or top-10, that’s really good. Something like James Hahn winning [the Northern Trust Open in February] or any other Korean player doesn’t happen as often. The truth is simple and it’s that we just need to play better.”

If anyone is poised to push Koreans into the PGA’s spotlight, it’s most likely Na. After more than a decade, he’s feeling a renewed love for the game and it shows.

“In the beginning, a lot of these guys have passion, they love it and they want to be great,” he said. “After a certain period of time I think players start to forget that and it just becomes a job. I had phases like that, I’m not going to lie, but right now deep down inside, I can say I still have a strong passion for the game. It’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s a treat to wake up everyday and have the chance to play golf.”

 

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