Kevin Na couldn’t be caught at the Charles Schwab Challenge

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - MAY 26: Kevin Na of the United States plays his shot from the sixth tee during the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club on May 26, 2019 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
FORT WORTH, TEXAS - MAY 26: Kevin Na of the United States plays his shot from the sixth tee during the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club on May 26, 2019 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Kevin Na faced a strong crew of challengers at the Charles Schwab Challenge, but at the end of the day, he was just too good to be caught.

Entering Sunday’s final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge, a half dozen players – with the widest possible range of tour pedigree – were bunched within two strokes of one another at the top.

Kevin Na, a 15-year veteran with two previous victories, led at 201, thanks largely to his second round 62. But lurking two strokes behind Na were a three-time major champion, a veteran who also possessed a major title, one of the bright up-and-comers seeking a breakthrough win, a recent tour champion, and – just to complete the picture – a virtual unknown.

Which would survive Colonial Country Club, a course with a tour resume so lengthy that it dates to the days of Ben Hogan’s youth?

The victor, of course, turned out to be Na, who put together a closing 66 to expand his margin to four strokes. None of the potential challengers made a late run at him, largely because neither Na nor Colonial permitted it.

Of all the leaders entering Sunday’s final round, only Na, Tony Finau (the up-and-comer) and C.T. Pan (the recent winner) survived Colonial. Finau posted a 68 and Pan a 69.

The other three, three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, veteran and former major winner Jim Furyk, and unknown Mackenzie Hughes, all succumbed, delivering rounds of 72, 73 and 72 respectively.

Na won because, alone among the six, he made Colonial bow to his whim Sunday. Statistically a sub-par driver and putter, he worked both of those vital ends of his game exquisitely on a classic course known to penalize weakness in either of those areas.

He coupled that with a superb display of his strength – the iron game – requiring the other contenders to deliver an equally flawless performance if they hoped merely to keep up. None could.

Na is not known as a long hitter. At 289.6 yards, he ranked among the bottom 40 in average distance last year. But when his game is on, he offsets that with command and position. Still, Na entered the Charles Schwab Challenge spotting the field about two-tenths of a stroke off the tee. Yet on Sunday, he drove consistently and superbly, gaining 1.16 strokes via that aspect of his game.

But if driving were all there were to it, Na would have had a fight on his hands Sunday. Finau, who is a long hitter, gained 1.172 strokes off the tee, and Furyk gained 1.08. Furyk’s problem lay in all the other aspects of his game. Normally a skilled putter and competent iron player, he gave back more than 3.5 strokes in those two areas alone Sunday, accounting for his 73 and his failure to finish any higher than a tie for 13th.

Hughes, who was paired with Kevin Na on Sunday, hoped to add his name to this season’s list of first-time winners. But all season long Hughes has not played to any particular strength, and on Sunday  that shortcoming haunted him. He also gave the field nearly a two-stroke advantage with his irons, sentencing himself to a tie for eighth.

Pan, the victor one month ago at the RBC Heritage, might have hit a breakthrough point with another victory. But his normally so-so driving game went chilly, costing him about eight-tenths of a stroke. So even a dazzling performance on Colonial’s greens – where he beat the field by 2.24 strokes – only positioned him to win if Na’s game went into retreat. When it did not, Pan found himself in a tie for third.

Entering Sunday’s final round, Spieth was the logical challenger. Not only does he have a Masters, U.S. Open and British Open championship to his credit, but he gives every indication of having regained the form that went AWOL through much of 2018. The most recent evidence of that was his tie for third place at last week’s PGA Championship.

On Sunday, Spieth drove the ball decently and hit enough irons to put him in positive territory tee-to-green. On those greens, however, the putting problems he appeared to have put behind him returned with a vengeance.

From Thursday through Saturday, Spieth had gained an average of more than three strokes on the field with his putter.  Had he merely approached that performance level Sunday, the outcome might have been different. Instead, he lost nearly 1.7 strokes to the field on the greens.

It was a fatal error because Kevin Na gained 1.25 strokes on those same greens. The 3-stroke swing in Na’s favor made it impossible for Spieth to make up the two strokes he started the day behind the leader. He, too, finished in a tie for third.

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That left only Finau in a position to contest the title. Give the steadiness of Na’s play, his chances were finite: either drive the bejeezus out of the ball, knock down pins with his approaches, or out-putt a normally indifferent putter having a hot round.

As already noted, Finau did manage to build an advantage – although only a small one – with his driver. He coupled that by picking up another 1.28 strokes thanks to a precision iron game. The problem was that Na also parlayed his driving acumen into productive iron play. As a result, by the time they both got to the greens Finau had gained 2.2 strokes on the field but lost 1.2 to Na.

But although Finau is normally a marginal better putter than Na, that wasn’t the case Sunday. He beat the field by about one-third of a stroke with his putting, but Na consigned him to runner-up status, beating the field by nearly a stroke and a quarter on the greens.

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That’s how a two-stroke lead becomes a four-stroke victory. Kevin Na earned this one the whole way.