Kevin Na knows Michelle Wie and has seen her play. Both are children of Korean immigrants, started learning the game at about the same age and dominated junior competition as teenagers.
But Na said yesterday that any comparison made between himself and the 14-year-old golfing prodigy from Hawaii would be simply foolish.
"She's 14, and already in a [PGA] Tour event; I don't think so," Na said of any similarity between the two after finishing a practice round at TPC at Avenel in preparation for the start of the Booz Allen Classic on Thursday.
Still, many people in golf are already starting to have comparably high expectations for Na, whose parents emigrated from Korea to California when he was 8 years old. At 20, he's the youngest player on the PGA Tour, not to mention in the field here this week, even if he already is a semi-grizzled veteran of two years playing professionally on the Asian and European tours.
"My hat's off to him," said Rich Beem, who won at Avenel in 1999 and took the PGA Championship in 2002. "Man, when I was 20, I didn't have a clue. It seems like he's a real nice kid; he's obviously got a lot of talent. His father is around him all the time. If I'd been around this much money when I was 20, I don't know what I'd have done."
Na's father, Yong, owned a gas station and some real estate in Seoul and was an enthusiastic golfer himself. Na recalled his father taking him to a par-3 course in the Los Angeles suburbs when he was 8: "I liked it right away. The longest hole was 140 yards, and it was perfect. It was better than starting out on a big course and spending the whole day running after your ball."
Yong Na also took Kevin to his first PGA Tour event at the 1995 Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where the child had his picture taken with Corey Pavin, who also happened to be playing in the field with Kevin's first coach, Brad Sherfy, once Pavin's teammate at UCLA.
"I still have that picture of him, and I took another one with Corey this year," said Na, who lives in Rancho Cucamonga. "I've got them side by side in my room. After I watched that tour event, it just looked like something I wanted to do. It's like a kid going to a baseball game with his father and telling his dad he wants to play in the majors. You never think it's going to happen, but it did for me."
It also happened rather quickly. At age 10, he broke 90, and the next year he broke par on a relatively short course at the club his parents belonged to near Pasadena. At 12, he shot 2-under-par over 36 holes and qualified for the U.S. Junior Boys championship, at the time the youngest player ever to accomplish that feat.
At 15, he started playing on and occasionally dominating the American Junior Golf Association circuit, and the next year came another breakthrough. Na finally got a chance to have a lesson from Butch Harmon, who was then working with Tiger Woods.
Harmon has worked with 23-year-old Australian star Adam Scott, also in the field here this week, and said in a recent interview that Na was "improving at a pace equal to both" Woods and Scott at the same age.
"The sky is the limit with his talent and his desire to get better," Harmon said in an interview published on the Asian PGA Tour Web site. "He hits the ball very straight but needs to get stronger. As he matures both in age and golf ability, his stamina will get better."
Na decided to skip his senior year of high school and focus on earning his PGA Tour card when he turned 18. He played in the first stage of qualifying near San Jose, shot 6 under over 72 holes and missed advancing to the second stage by two shots.
"I was like, 'Wow, what do you have to do to keep going?' " Na recalled.
Because he had essentially turned pro in attempting to qualify, high school and junior golf were no longer options. He could have toured the United States on mini-tour circuits, but opted instead to play on the Asian Tour. His parents accompanied him, and in nine events, he finished fourth on the 2002 money list, winning the season-ending Volvo Masters of Asia, played in Malaysia. At age 19, he was the youngest champion in that tour's history.
Last year, he divided his time between the European Tour and Asia, and last fall, he finished 21st in the final stage of the PGA Tour qualifying school, earning his card to play full-time this season. Na won the first stage of Q-School by eight shots, finished third in the second stage after opening with a 65-68 and closing with a 67 and played the final stage in 9 under.
He is 88th on the money list with $460,774 in earnings and should have no difficulty retaining his card next year. He and K.J. Choi are the only Koreans on the men's tour, in stark contrast to the 21 Korean women playing on the LPGA circuit. Choi became the first Korean male to win on the PGA Tour in 2002 in New Orleans, and Na believes that victory, coupled with his own success, may eventually lead to more of his countrymen making it to the PGA Tour.
This week, he has come to the Washington suburbs with no grand expectations, just as he does every week he competes on the tour. That is not to say he doesn't think he could win this week, or any week in his rookie season.
"I pretty much take it day to day, week to week," he said. "I'm having fun out here and trying to learn the courses. If you keep your expectations too low, you'll be happy with little accomplishments. If you make them too high, you get depressed when you don't reach those goals. My outlook is whatever happens, accept it and go from there."