Maybe it’s fitting it took Kevin Na a long time to win his second PGA Tour title. Few players have recently taken more heat for slow playing as Na.
“Six years, nine months,” says Na’s longtime caddie, Kenny Harms, who is used to producing numbers quickly on the golf course for his boss. “That’s a long stretch for a player of Kevin’s caliber.”
It’s also the longest streak Harms has gone without taking home the ceremonial 18th-hole flag since he started caddying in 1990.
The 52-year-old Harms has 29 flags in his Orlando home as one of the few caddies who can say he has won on all three major U.S. Tours – the PGA Tour, the PGA Tour Champions and the LPGA Tour.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have worked for Hall of Famers such as Hale Irwin, the all-time wins leader on the 50-and-older circuit, Hubert Green, Raymond Floyd, Gary Player and Lee Trevino, not to mention Na, Aaron Baddeley, Michelle Wie, Jan Stephenson and Emilee Klein (Harms’ ex-wife who won the 1996 Women’s British Open with Harms caddying).
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“I’ve been pretty blessed to work with some great players,” Harms said. “That feeling you have when you’re coming down the stretch of winning a tournament is like nothing else. That’s what you are there for. You’re not there to finish second or third. You only care about winning.”
There was joy for both player and caddie when Na stepped to the 18th tee Sunday at A Military Tribute at The Greenbriar with a five-shot lead. Pressure was replaced by pleasure.
“I just told Kevin to enjoy it,” said Harms, who lagged 40 yards behind his player so Na could bask in the limelight. “It was his stadium.”
Things are not always this serene between player and caddie, even this player and caddie. Na and Harms were caught by CBS cameras having a heated conversation on club selection in the first round of this year’s Fort Worth Invitational.
Na wanted to try a risky shot out of the rough on his final hole of the day even though he was 7-under for the round. Harms argued against it – to no avail. Na eventually chipped in for birdie, but the conversation says plenty about the way Harms handles his profession.
“That’s my job,” Harms said. “I’m not paid to say ‘yes.’”
Nor is he paid to defend Na on the golf course, but the former star wrestler in high school who has never lost a caddie race doesn’t back down when fans take verbal shots at Na’s reputation of playing slow.
The nadir came in the final round of the 2012 Players Championship when Na, who led after 54 holes, was taunted and booed by fans after he kept waggling his club and would purposely whiff the shot because he didn’t feel comfortable. Na, who blamed his pre-shot routine on a swing change, tumbled to seventh place.
“The worst moment came on the sixth tee when some guy walks up to Kevin and says, ‘I have $2,000 bet on you. Don’t start choking,’” Harms said. “That was probably the closest I ever came to going under the ropes and taking care of the situation.
“It happened the whole day and unfortunately nothing was done about it. I’m not blaming that on our score (76), but everyone thought Kevin was playing slow. He wasn’t. He just couldn’t pull the trigger, something that’s happened to a lot of players.
“Kevin was the first player to ever say ‘yes, I have a problem and I’m going to fix it. And he has. Kevin has this stigma, but if you ask other players, I guarantee you 90 percent of them would say Kevin is faster. I’m proud he put the game of golf before himself.”
Harms likely isn’t afraid to speak up because of the Hall of Famers he caddied for early in his career. Veterans such as Floyd, Green and Irwin won’t have you on the bag for long if you’re going to be intimidated.
“I could tell Hubert to stop in his backswing and he would,” Harms said. “He really let me caddie.”
Harms and Green had a close enough relationship that Green texted his former caddie two days before he passed away last month. Harms always remembers a conversation he had with Green in 1999 after they had teamed for four wins on the PGA Tour Champions.
“I told him I had a problem,” Harms said. “I got a call from Hale Irwin and he wants me to work for him.”
“What’s your problem?” Green answered. “If you don’t take the job, you’re fired. You’re going to make so much more money with him than me.”
Harms spent eight years working for Irwin when he was still dominating the seniors. Yes, Harms made a lot of money, added to his 18th-hole flag collection and had the opportunity to caddie for Irwin against other superstars such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in the Skins Game.
“Just being around these guys, you can see this greatness about them,” Harms said.
In 2008 Harms was contacted by Na’s family to see if he would caddie for then-25-year-old. Soon, Harms would have the same conversation with Irwin he had with Green eight years earlier.
“It’s so hard to leave a player, especially such an amazing family man as Hale,” Harms said. “I don’t think players know how hard it is when a caddie quits to work for another player.”
Harms says he’s never been fired during his 28-year run as a professional caddie. But he’s enjoyed opportunities to work for some big names when his regular player was taking a week off.
Of working for Floyd, Harms said: “I loved Raymond because you got to caddie. I caddied for him at the 2006 Masters and when we got to the first hole, he said, ‘What you thinking?’ That doesn’t mean he’s going to agree with me, but he was old school.”
Of working with Trevino: “I got to caddie for Lee in his first tournament since he went to Germany to have his back worked on. I always wanted to caddie for him. He eventually called me and told me he had seen this kid in Las Vegas named Tony Finau who he said was going to be great. He had given my name to Tony’s family and told them they should hire me. That was eight years before Tony made it out here.”
Of working with Wie: “I caddied for her in ’07 and ’08 during off weeks from Hale. Lovely girl, amazing talent, but she couldn’t play because she was still coming back from an injury.”
Harms doesn’t need to do any more moonlighting – Na has made more than $20 million on the PGA Tour since Harms took over his bag.
He will use his latest winner’s share of $130,000 to invest in a home he and his brother bought in Orlando. They plan to live in it for six months and hopefully sell it.
Harms knows that in life, just like in golf, sometimes it takes a little more time to get the desired result.