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Slow Na backs off to get ahead at TPC; Painful performance nets 54-hole lead

Kevin Na is slow to pull the trigger, and quick to make fun of himself.

In what made for painful viewing Saturday in The Players Championship -- for fans at the TPC Sawgrass and those watching from home -- Na took hundreds of waggles as he set up over the ball, backed off the shot if he didn't feel comfortable and a couple of times purposely missed so he could start over.

The only number that mattered was a 4-under 68, one of only three bogey-free rounds on a dangerous golf course. Backing off only once in the 18th fairway, he hit his approach to 15 feet for birdie and took a one-shot lead over Matt Kuchar (69) going into the final round.

"There's so much on the line that I just have to sometimes back off," Na said. "Or I'll force myself to take it back, and on the way down I'll pull up and go over the top [of the ball]. As ugly as it is, and as painful as it is, believe me, it's really tough for me. And I'm trying."

Kuchar had the lead until hitting a wedge into the water at the island-green 17th and escaping with bogey, and he saved par from the rough-covered moguls to the right of the 18th green. He had one stretch of eight holes without a par, making six birdies and two bogeys.

Rickie Fowler, coming off his first PGA Tour win last week at Quail Hollow, shot up the leader board. Fowler didn't make a bogey until the last hole and his 66 was the best score of the third round. He is two shots behind. He is trying to become the first player since David Duval in 1997 to win his first two PGA Tour titles in consecutive weeks.

Na is not oblivious to how bad it looks, how slow he plays or the reaction from all corners.

"Trust me, I get ripped a lot," he said. "I know TV, Twitter and fans are tired of me backing off. I understand people being frustrated with me backing off, but all I can tell you guys is honestly, I'm trying. And it's hard for me, too.

"But just bear with me, and hopefully we get that tomorrow round in."

Na, who won for the first time last fall in Las Vegas, was at 12-under 204. The 54-hole leader has not won The Players Championship since it moved to May in 2007.

Texas Open champion Ben Curtis also played bogey-free. He just didn't have as many birdies, missing from inside 10 feet on his last two holes for a 70. He was five shots behind, along with Johnson, who bogeyed the last hole for a 73.

Tiger Woods never came close to getting into contention, though he gave himself plenty of chances. The card shows two birdies, two bogeys and a 72 that left him 10 shots out of the lead going into the final round. It was hard for him to digest.

"I played well today and didn't get anything out of that round," Woods said. "It was probably the most solid I've hit the golf ball all year, actually. Even though I hit a couple off line, they were just hit dead flush. I just got nothing out of the round."

Na, long known as one of the slowest players in golf, attributes his bizarre routine of waggles and whiffs to a swing change. He and Johnson, also known for his slow pace, were on the clock throughout the back nine. Na was given a bad time on the 16th hole while on the clock, meaning one more bad time and he would have become the first PGA Tour player in 20 years to get a one-shot penalty.

He made an unsuccessful appeal, claiming he went over the allotted time because his caddie's shadow was in the way.

After backing off one shot on the sixth tee, he apologized to Johnson.

"I'm good friends with Zach, and Zach understands," Na said. "I think the only guy that would really understand is Sergio (Garcia) if I played with him, because he's gone through it."

Na is equally famous for taking a 16 on one hole in the Texas Open last year, though it didn't take him much time to take those strokes.

"It's probably when I'm in the trees I hit it faster," he said. "But I don't want to play from the trees."