Zach Johnson shot a 1-over par 73 Saturday at The Players Championship and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee thinks he knows why.
Johnson had to play his third round with fellow second-round co-leader Kevin Na. Na has a maddening case of the full-swing yips and seemingly takes forever to hit a shot from the tee or fairway. Na's start-and-stop routine consists of many waggles, frequent stepping away and starting over, Na yelling at himself to "pull the trigger!", and apologizing to his friend Zach for his inability to swing the club in a timely manner.
Na's form of golf-swing paralysis is difficult to watch on TV much less to play alongside for 18 holes. But rather than be put in a position to complain, Zach skipped the customary media confab after his round in favor of a session on the practice green.
"Zach is too nice a guy to say it disrupted his play, but I have no doubt it disrupted his play," Chamblee said on his channel's post game show. Normally a solid putter, Zach missed a number of short putts.
Notwithstanding the halting nature of his pre-shot routine, when Na finally did hit the ball, he struck it well. The Korean-born naturalized American citizen shot 4-under 68 in difficult windy conditions at TPC Sawgrass in a bogey-free round that included four birdies, including one on the difficult 18th. And he pulled it off despite being put "on the clock" for slow play by PGA Tour officials, who ultimately didn't penalize him.
"I changed my set up starting at the Masters last year ," Na explained. "I was trying to get more forward, trying to get the back swing more up. And because my balance at the set up is totally different, I don't feel comfortable. I'm trying to get comfortable with my waggles. It's usually a little waggle, half waggle, little waggle, half waggle and, boom, I'm supposed to pull the trigger. But if it doesn't work, I've got to go in pairs. So, it'll go four, and if it doesn't work, it'll go six, and after that, there's a lot going on in my head (Laughter).
"I'm not being nice to myself, trust me. I'm ripping myself...As ugly as it is and as painful as it is, believe me, it's really tough for me. I'm trying."
Zach was trying, too, but he missed a few short putts, including a three-footer for birdie on No. 12. He finished with three bogeys and two birdies after his outstanding 66 on Friday. Though he's five shots off the lead, he's the sort of steady player that still has a chance on a volatile golf course capable of disrupting the games of any player in front or behind him.
Despite the overall oddness of the proceedings, Na finds himself leading the tournament by a stroke at 12-under par. Matt Kuchar, who shot a 3-under 69, is at 11-under. He and Na are the only players to shoot three rounds in the 60s. On Sunday, Kuchar plays with Na in the final pairing.
Sitting in third place is Rickie Fowler, who fired a scintillating 6-under 66, the low round of the day, which moved him up 14 places on the leaderboard. Fowler, 23, who earned his first PGA Tour victory last week in a sudden death playoff at Quail Hollow, is in position to make it two in a row and is brimming with confidence.
"I feel like I'm in kind of an underdog position," Fowler said, noting that few players win back-to-back and no one else expects them to. "Maybe overlooked at the start of the week. [People thinking that I] won last week, may be a little tired...It's just kind of the mindset that I have...kind of a reverse psychology in a way. I know that I'm playing well. I know that I'm ready to compete, especially coming off last week. I'm excited about tomorrow."
Two shots behind Fowler at 7-under are Zach, the John Deere Classic board member former Masters champion, and former British Open champion Ben Curtis, who won the Valero Texas Open a couple of weeks ago. Curtis, who has shot 68-71-70 through 54 holes, will be paired with Fowler and his bright orange Sunday ensemble. Zach will be in the third-to-last pairing with Jhonattan Vegas, who shot 4-under 68 to get to 6-under for the tournament.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Byrd, the 2007 John Deere Classic champion, made four birdies and four bogeys Saturday to finish at even par 72 and remain at 6-under. He's in a four-way tie for sixth with Vegas, England's Brian Davis, and Scotland's Martin Laird.
Phil Mickelson is T-14 at 4-under with 12 other players after having been inducted into the PGA Tour Hall of Fame earlier in the week. Tiger Woods is tied for 34th with eight other players at 2-under. Harris English, the rookie out of Georgia who was tied for third at 7-under going into Round 3, shot 79 Saturday and is now at even par. English hit a spectator with his drive off the first tee and drew blood.
NOTES: Among the top five players on the leaderboard, three played in the John Deere Classic on sponsor exemptions right out of college: Matt Kuchar (Georgia Tech), Rickie Fowler (Oklahoma State), and Zach Johnson (Drake)... Former Ryder Cup player J.J. Henry has a new caddie on his bag this week. He's former PGA Tour veteran Mark Brooks, who won seven times during his career, including the 1996 PGA Championship. Brooks had $9.4 million in official career earnings.