Na aims to be ‘most successful Korean athlete in the U.S.’At the Verdugo Hills Golf Course near Los Angeles in 1992, a skinny nine-year-old boy was playing a round of golf with his brother, who was three years older. The young boy was no match for his elder sibling.
“Brother, I don’t want to go home like this. Let’s play another nine holes,” he said. He was persistent and his brother gave in. The young boy finally beat his elder brother and they returned home. A few years later, the boy conquered the American amateur golf championships. He is Kevin Na, who at 21 is the youngest golfer on the PGA Tour.
Mr. Na is an adult now, standing 1.8 meters (5 feet, 11 inches) tall and weighing 84 kilograms (167 pounds).
Mr. Na, whose Korean name is Sang-wook, emigrated to the United States with his family in 1991, when he was eight years old. His family was affluent, but remained traditional and informal.
When he was not playing well, he grumbled in Korean rather than in English. When he was arguing with his brother in English, his mother scolded them. “Are you Korean or not? If you boys are going to argue, do it in Korean,” she said. Since then, Mr. Na has tried to use Korean as much as possible and still holds his Korean nationality.
He also prefers Korean food. “I like to eat ox-blood soup and blood sausage, not to mention kimchi stew and bean paste soup,” he said. He likes to watch Korean sitcoms and films; most recently, he saw “Lovely Rivals.”
Mr. Na picked up his first golf club when he went with his father onto a golf course the same year they arrived in the United States.
“In the beginning, the elder son, Sang-hyon, seemed to have more talent,” said Na Yong-hoon, Kevin’s father. “But when Sang-wook starts to do something, he does not want to lose to anyone. Two or three years later, Sang-wook moved ahead of his brother.”
Given his talent, Mr. Na started taking formal golf lessons. His first instructor was his father. After school was over, he practiced every day until dusk, and by doing so he swept junior-level tournaments in the region. People began talking about a “golf genius.”
“In every tournament, other golfers registered for the competition [at the last minute],” his father said. “If Kevin Na was going to play, other golfers gave up the tournament one by one.”
When he was 14, he entered a golf school run by swing coach Butch Harman, who taught Tiger Woods. Mr. Harman tends not to train juniors, but Mr. Na was an exception, the only junior golfer Mr. Harman taught himself.
“I learned the basics from Mr. Harman. I learned how to send the ball straight and far,” Mr. Na said.
After that, he was successful all the way; there was no opponent who could match him in the national amateur championships in the United States. In 2001, when Mr. Na was 17, he gave up going to college and decided to turn professional.
“I was not interested in studying and I was confident that I wouldn’t lose to anyone in sports,” he said. “Rather than attending school and not being able to concentrate on playing golf, I decided to bet everything on the game.”
Winning a professional golf tournament did not come easily, however, and Mr. Na initially did not pass the qualifying school to get on the PGA Tour, his first major setback.
“It was the gap between amateur and professional games,” Mr. Na said. “I tried my best. I even thought that my score was not bad, but the result was disappointing. I got a little afraid.”
Instead, he tried his luck on the Asian and European tours, before finally earning his place on the PGA Tour at the 2003 qualifying school, and making his debut a year later. He was the youngest person to play on the PGA Tour in the organization’s history.
On Feb. 7, Mr. Na tied for second place at the PGA FBR Open in Scottsdale, Arizona, and just had another second place finish on Sunday with a tie at the Chrysler Classic in Tucson, Arizona.
During an interview after the FBR Open, he said, “It is true that I’ve made quick progress, but it was never a big jump. I moved up step by step through the Asian and European tours.”
For more than 10 years, his life has centered on golf. His dream is to become the “most successful Korean athlete in the United States.”
“For now, Pak Se-ri may be the most successful Korean golfer in the United States, and Park Chan-ho could be the most successful Korean athlete in all sports,” he said. “I want to stand in their place someday.”
Mr. Na said if he wins a PGA Tour tournament, “I will fly back to Korea immediately.”
by Chung Jeh-won