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Las Vegas resident continues to improve on tour

Kevin Na has made huge strides on the PGA Tour the past two years, topping the $2 million mark in prize money in both 2009 and 2010.

But based on his early returns in 2011, the 27-year-old Las Vegas resident is hardly content, taking more steps toward becoming a standout player on the tour.

Na opened the year with a 20th-place effort at the Sony Open in Hawaii, shooting a pair of 67s the first two days, followed by a pair of 69s. A week later at the Bob Hope Classic, a five-round event in La Quinta, Calif., Na shot 65-67 on the weekend for a 24-under 336 total and a fifth-place finish worth $190,000.

He hit a speed bump in missing the next three cuts, then got back to Southern California — where he was raised after being born in South Korea — and his true comfort zone at the Northern Trust Open.

“Riviera is my favorite course,” Na said of the track in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “I walked it when I was 10 years old, and it was great being in the final group this year.”

Na certainly looked comfortable, putting himself in position for his first PGA Tour victory as he played the last round with Aaron Baddeley and Fred Couples.

“A lot of friends can come out to watch me play there,” Na said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Baddeley hung on for the victory, but Na finished a solid third, three strokes back at 9-under 275. He shot 71s in the first and final rounds, sandwiching in strong efforts of 66 on Friday and 67 on Saturday.

“I’ve had a good start (to the season). I felt like I had two really good tournaments,” Na said, alluding to his finishes at the Northern Trust and the Bob Hope.

So far this year, Na sits 24th in the FedEx Cup standings and 25th on the money list ($771,090), and he’s 61st in the world rankings.

Na is in the midst of three tournaments in three weeks. He tied for 35th in the World Golf Championships’ Cadillac Championships on the Blue Monster course at Doral, Fla., earlier this month. In that event, limited to 66 players, Na bounced back from a 74-75 start in the first two rounds, shooting a pair of 69s on the weekend.

He’ll play the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week at Bay Hill in Orlando, then take a week off before making his second trip to prestigious Augusta National for the Masters.

Na is eager for the Masters, now that he’s gotten over the first-year jitters that tournament can cause, as he missed the cut in 2010. Not that he still didn’t enjoy the experience.

“With the Masters, you watch it growing up, and you hope and dream of playing in it someday,” he said. “It’s a pretty cool feeling, playing at the Masters. At Amen Corner, you look around and say, ‘Wow, it’s pretty cool that I’m here.’

“The golf course was so new to me. I didn’t have any local knowledge, which made it a lot more difficult. I know what to expect now, so I expect a lot more out of myself this year.”

Which means he’ll surely be looking to not only make the cut, but to compete well over the weekend among the blooming azaleas and traditional pimento cheese sandwiches.

“I think I’ve improved in all parts of the game,” Na said. “I’m definitely a lot stronger physically than I’ve ever been. I went on a pretty hard workout schedule in the offseason. I got a trainer and put on 7 pounds of muscle.”

That’s made a big difference when it comes to handling the grind of the PGA Tour. Na is in the midst of three weeks away from home in Florida; he’ll come back for a week before the three-week road stretch starting with the Masters.

“It helps me not be fatigued from week to week,” Na said of his workout regiment. “It’s a lot tougher out here than people think.”

And Na recognizes he still has plenty of room to improve.

“I need to drive the ball better. I need to hit more fairways,” he said.

Fortunately, Na has proven to be one of the best players out there in scrambling, consistently finding ways to make birdies and pars.

“In seven full seasons, the worst I’ve finished in scrambling (for a season) is 14th. Second and third is the best I’ve finished,” he said. “It’s nice to know that I have that (ability).”

Indeed. He rates 19th in scrambling so far this season and is No. 1 on the tour in average putts per round (27.36).

The one stat that Na most craves to fill, though, is a PGA Tour victory. This week could be a good place to start. Na tied for second last year at Bay Hill, his third career runner-up effort on the tour.

Along with Bay Hill, he’s got some other courses that he likes coming up on his itinerary. Two weeks after the Masters, he’ll play in the Heritage at Harbor Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C. Then, on back-to-back weekends in mid-May, he’s got two more courses he enjoys playing: TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., for the Players Championship; and Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, for the Crown Plaza Invitational.

“Every year, I’m trying to get better as a player, and the last two years, I’ve definitely gotten better,” said Na, who counts TPC Las Vegas and TPC Summerlin as his home courses. “This year, I want to do better than last year. I’d really like to get that first win.”

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