It was not quite Stewart Cink over Tom Watson at the 2009 Open Championship, but Kevin Na’s Sony Open win over Chris Kirk (and Joaquin Niemann) had similar vibes. With a birdie at the last hole, Na won for the fifth time on the PGA Tour and the fourth season in a row (joining only Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau as players who have accomplished that feat).
Kirk’s story of coming all the way back from an extended break from the PGA Tour and battling for his first win in five years was captivating, but he walked away with the nice consolation prize of an extended PGA Tour card and the opportunity to finish out the season after so much darkness over the past few years (more on him below). And while that would have been a feel-good story to start 2021, Na’s story is compelling as well.
Buoyed by a 61 on Saturday to run all the way up the leaderboard, Na closed with four birdies in his last six holes — including an up-and-down birdie at the last — to beat Kirk and Niemann by one. Incredibly, after winning one time in his first 364 PGA Tour events, he’s now won four times in his last 55 events.
“All these experiences — playing 18 years on the PGA Tour — are paying off right now,” he told Golf Channel about closing down the stretch. “I got out here so young, it took me forever to win and it took me forever to validate. I’m so happy at home, and that’s showing up on the golf course when I’m playing out here.”
Na will be an interesting player to follow this year. The next step for him is clearly contending in a major championship — he has not finished in the top 15 at one since 2016 — and vying for a spot on the Ryder Cup team. His style does not bode well for the former but it might for the latter. Normally not the best ball-striker on the PGA Tour, he actually finished third from tee to green at Waialae Country Club, which is a short track that fits his skillset better than most. Whether any of this is foreshadowing for what’s to come in 2021 remains to be seen.
What is assured is that one of the most charismatic and interesting players (and careers) on the PGA Tour reached a landmark fifth win for his career. It’s a number only a minuscule percentage of pros even reach, and Na has plenty of runway for the next five or so years to add to it. That might have to come on tracks like Colonial and Waialae (site of two of his last three wins), but I’m guessing Na doesn’t care where they come, only how many more there are. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the Sony Open.
Chris Kirk (T2): His struggles with alcoholism are well-documented but worth revisiting. Kirk was briefly the clubhouse leader after finishing at 20 under but eventually got bumped. Still, either a two-way tie for third or a six-way tie for second would have allowed him to keep his PGA Tour card as he was playing on a major medical exemption. After two bogeys in his first three holes, he played his last 13 in 7 under. An amazing finish and an even better story. Grade: A+
Joaquin Niemann (T2): Niemann went back-to-back on runner-up finishes in Hawaii, which is probably frustrating but also pretty incredible and a sign for me of what this year holds for him. He did not have his best stuff on Sunday but chipped in at the very end on the 17th hole and made birdie at the last to fall one short. It was a great cap to somebody who, despite not holding a trophy in Hawaii, was certainly the winner of the Hawaii swing. Grade: A+
Webb Simpson (T4): It seemed as if Simpson got knocked out of contention multiple times, but he kept bouncing back thanks to a putter that couldn’t miss. He clearly was not his usual self on approach shots — he was barely positive strokes gained there and hit some puzzling ones throughout the week — but he made up for it elsewhere and notched a second consecutive top 10 at Waialae. Grade: A
Daniel Berger (T7): An absolute top-10 machine. Berger now has nine of them in his last 17 starts on the PGA Tour. He only had one mediocre day (a 68 on Friday when the scoring average was 68.5) — which kept him from the win — but he’s been producing like a top-15 player in the world for nearly a year now. Grade: A
Collin Morikawa (T7): He backed up a strong start at last week’s Tournament of Champions with another good showing this week that included a top 10 where he led the field in approach shots. Two doubles throughout the week unraveled his chances of winning for the fourth time on the PGA Tour, but his one-two start to 2021 is encouraging following a tepid ending to 2020. Grade: A
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