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The Players Championship: Leader Kevin Na battles his own swing as Rickie Fowler looms in title hunt

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Common sense, not to mention fan sentiment, would argue that Rickie Fowler inserted himself Saturday as the leading man at the Players Championship. He wears clothes that have long defined the man, almost before he was a full-grown man. This year, he added a mustache — in the loosest sense of the word — that makes it appear he cares not what he looks like. Who is he reminiscent of?

“Johnny Depp, a little bit, with the look,” Phil Mickelson said. “Doesn’t he look exactly like him?”

By Sunday night, Fowler may indeed own center stage at TPC Sawgrass, a winner in back-to-back weeks. But Saturday, in the low light on the Stadium Course, came a club-waggling, nerve-jangling curiosity. Kevin Na is a professional golfer who even owns a PGA Tour victory. From take-back to impact and through the ball, his swing looks beautiful, and Saturday it produced wonderful shots en route to a 68. That got him to 12 under par for the tournament, one better than Matt Kuchar and three better than Fowler, who endured howling winds early in his round to post a 66, the day’s best score.

But even as Fowler draws attention and fans with his monochrome orange outfit on Sunday, and even as he tries to back up last week’s first career PGA Tour victory with one that would solidify his status as a star, Na will draw so many eyes, albeit for perverse reasons.

“As ugly as it is, and as painful as it is,” Na said, “believe me, it’s really tough for me, and I’m trying.”

At 28, Na is at a stage in his career when he can stand over a shot and simply find himself unable to pull the club back. His start-stop, start-stop, start-stop motion can make him frustrating to watch and difficult to play with. A regular practice partner recently told him, “Bro, I don’t know how you do it.”

So let him try to explain. More than a year ago, Na began a swing overhaul that put him in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable position over the ball. He simply can’t get balanced. And so it begins.

“I’m trying to get comfortable with my waggles,” Na said, describing his habit of starting the club back and making a mini-swing. “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 . . . well, then, there’s trouble. Na said he also has to “go in pairs,” so if he doesn’t swing after four, he has to wait until six. And if not after six? “There’s a lot going on in my head,” he said.

On the 14th tee Saturday, about when he figured “only the whole world is watching,” Na stood with his driver. He pulled it back once, twice — eight times. And then he swung completely, but over the ball, a dramatic practice swing. He stepped away, reset, took four more waggles, and drilled a perfect 287-yard drive down the right side. And still, an internal struggle.

“I’m not being nice to myself,” Na said. “I’m ripping myself.”

Through all this, Na didn’t make a single bogey Saturday, and his closing birdie put him in the lead alone. But that couldn’t match Fowler, whose only bogey came at 18.

“I’d have to say it was a fairly perfect round,” Fowler said.

It is Fowler who arrived here as golf’s latest man of the moment, realizing his enormous potential by winning last week in Charlotte, a victory that came over fellow 23-year-old Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, in a playoff.

“Plays without fear,” Mickelson said.

Which could, in turn, send fear across the rest of the leader board.

“He’s got an inordinate amount of talent,” said Tiger Woods, who played with Fowler for the first two days here. “It was just a matter of time before he broke through. He’s the type of guy, once he understands what it takes to win out here, he can win a lot.”

Woods has won a lot out here, but his next one almost certainly won’t come this week. He hit the ball well for most of Saturday’s even-par 72. But on Nos. 6, 7 and 8, he was inside playing partner Keegan Bradley. Each time, Bradley made his putt. Each time, Woods missed — and he worsened his problems by lipping out a three-footer for par at 7.

“Misread two of them, which is fine,” Woods said. “And then I hit two other just bad putts.”

So he is basically out of it, 10 shots off the lead. He is, though, the last player to win in consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour. Back in the summer of 2009, when he was still at the height of his powers, Woods won the Buick Open and the Bridgestone Invitational one week after the other.

“It’s just not easy,” Woods said.

Fowler has that shot Sunday. “Just going to enjoy the walk tomorrow,” he said.

The walk will be difficult and demanding. It will come all in orange. And it will come just in front of Na, who will be competing against Kuchar, his playing partner; against Fowler, almost certain to be the people’s choice; and against his own demons, who must allow him to stand over a shot, take back his club, and swing through the ball unencumbered. It is a torturous task.

“It’s hard for me, too,” he said. “But just bear with me.”

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