LOS ANGELES -- From the moment Kevin Na teed it up at the final round of the Northern Trust Open on Sunday, you knew it was going to be one of those days.
"From Greenville, South Carolina, please welcome Matt Bettencourt," the starter announced.
Na stepped away from his ball at the drivable Par 4 10th. "I'm laying up, so I'm going first," he said.
"Take two," the starter joked, before giving the correct introduction.
Everyone out to watch the 10:25 a.m. tee time laughed. All 53 of them. Everyone else at Riviera Country Club was stacked ten deep for a glimpse at the other 10:25 grouping, the one going off the first tee. That's where co-leaders Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley were insulated by a gallery of thousands. Turns out it's lonely at the bottom on the PGA Tour too -- because that's exactly where Bettencourt and Na were on the leaderboard.
Which begged the question -- what's it like playing from the fringe of the cutline?
No matter how poorly they shot, their checks wouldn't change. They were guaranteed a very nice five-figure walkaway. So Sunday brought not high drama, but rather a few unprintable words, a putter flip, a discussion over whether you can order pizza to a golf tournament, and a lot of fun.
Before the starter's mistake on the 10th tee, Bettencourt was already in a light-hearted mood. "Can we tee off at the same time? Now introducing Matt and Kevin," he joked.
"Seriously, has that ever happened?" Na asked in return.
A marshal within earshot with little sense of humor explained that it was against the rules and would result in a penalty. But considering Bettencourt was entering the final round plus seven and Na was plus 10, it looked, for a brief moment, as if they were actually considering it.
Instead, Na laid up poorly and Bettencourt went for it and missed. They reconvened at the green, where Na finally got down with triple bogey. As the pair walked to the second tee, Bettencourt commented on the difficulty for such a short hole. Na is stung, but still gave it its due. "Best 310-yard par 4 in the world," he said.
At the 11th, a long par five, it became clear Na wouldn't play timid. He asked his caddy if he could get home, meaning hit the green in two. "Driver-Driver," his bagman responded, and Na went for it. He made birdie. Bettencourt bogeyed. This up and down would be the rhythm of the day.
On the way to the 12th tee, fans chanted "Na Na Na Na" from the "Goodbye" song. Bettencourt asked Na how he felt. "I hear it every week," he said. "It's OK though. I like it."
As they waited in the fairway to hit their approach shots, the pair got into a discussion about the World Golf Rankings. Both men turned pro in 2001 and have had similar careers until recently. Bettencourt entered the tournament 336th. He'd missed the first three cuts of the season and had made just $14,208 so far this year by finishing 58th at the AT&T Pebble Beach the week before.
Na, on the other hand, had finished in the top five the past two weeks and earned $627,708 in 2012. But because the World Golf Rankings are accumulated over a two-year rolling period, he was only at 62.
"I've made like $1.5M in the last seven tournaments and only moved up like 10 spots," Na said.
The 13th hole would test the duo's easy-going attitude. They both found the trees off the tee. Bettencourt had no stance though and, without so much as a practice swing, punched his ball clean across the fairway into the right rough. He managed bogey. Na wasn't as fortunate. His second shot ended up next to the grandstand. He chipped through the green and ended up making double.
Na recovered with a par on the next hole, but the bogey run continued for Bettencourt. The round was officially a disaster. A wait on the 15th tee gave the golfers a moment to unwind. Bettencourt chatted with some friends who have caught up with the group. Na sat down and dug into a tasty-looking wrap. He joked with the volunteer marshals and said he once won a club throwing contest.
"I don't know how many yards, but I threw it ridiculously far," he boasted.
Bettencourt came to the tee and saw Na finishing his lunch. "Can we order some pizza and have it delivered to the front nine?" he asked.
"Is that possible?" Na questions back.
"Anything is possible," he said.
Yeah, like shooting an 80.
As they walked off the tee, Na noticed a nearby standard bearer showing Joe Ogilvie collapsed and was eight over par for the tournament. "Looks like Joe should be in our group," Na quipped to Ogilvie's caddy.
Na's caddy decided to have a little fun himself as the group walked up the 15th fairway. Another caddy had left a golf bag by the ropes and snuck off to the restroom. Na's guy placed the bag behind a nearby tree, then dashed off, chuckling to himself.
It was no laughing matter on the green though: Na recorded another bogey and Bettencourt doubled.
After a good tee shot on the Par 3 16th, Bettencourt had about fifteen feet for birdie. But his attempt stopped just a few blades of grass from going in. He stared incredulously at the ball for 30 awkward seconds.
He still had his putter in his hand when he teed up the ball on 17. Someone in the crowd dared him to use it in lieu of a driver.
"Throw some money down," Na said. "He'll do it."
As they walked up the fairway, the pair realized just how terribly they were playing. "If we don't break 80 ... " Na said, trailing off.
Bettencourt laughed, but it must've kicked something into gear. He made his first birdie of the day. Na, though, couldn't seem to find the green and ended up using his wedge to tap in for par.
The biggest gallery of the day waited for the two at the 18th green, although technically they were waiting for everyone else, including the eventual winner. Both golfers made par, but the 80 they were trying to avoid had become a real possibility. Bettencourt finished his first nine holes at +4 on the day. Na was +6.
They received a smattering of applause from the gallery. But the day was only halfway done -- a realization that was not lost on Na. On the 1st tee box, he discussed the virtue of a prolonged lunch.
"There's no one behind us," he said. "We could take off for like an hour, then come back and finish."
Bettencourt laughed, but his playing partner had a plan. They whisper for a moment. As soon as they hit their tee shots, they sprinted into the clubhouse through a players-only entrance. The caddies started down the fairway and waited. Ten minutes later, Bettencourt and Na emerged from their impromptu excursion with huge smiles on their faces. (Not that there was anyone around to see.) The front nine was a ghost town. The crowd was busy following the leaders. Save the ropes and abandoned TV towers, it could have been a Tuesday at any country club. Bettencourt and Na finally made it to their tee shots, and waiting caddies. They gave each other a wink and a laugh as they got back to work.
The last nine went by more quickly.
Bettencourt managed eight pars and just a single bogey for a final round 76. Since he wasn't the only one having a bad day on the course, he actually improved in position slightly and ended tied for 72nd. Na, though, finished right where he started. Despite an even par last nine holes, he shot 77 and wound up dead last of those who made the cut.
The two were off the 9th green long before Mickelson and Bradley made it to the 18th. They were probably miles away from the course by the time Bill Haas rolled in a long birdie putt on the second playoff hole to win.
Their handshake after putting out on the 72nd hole said it all. It was a sigh of relief. The whole thing was finally over.
And they had both broken 80.
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