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Kevin Na, Jerry Kelly tied for lead at Players Championship

Jerry Kelly shoots a tournament-beset 65 to forge a tie with Kevin Na at halfway point of TPC

Golfer Kevin Na wants to be known for more than a bad hole and a bad habit.

He will have his chance this weekend at the Players Championship.

Na shot a three-under-par 69 Friday and enters the third round at eight under, tied for the lead with 48-year-old Jerry Kelly, who shot a 65.

Na has contended previously at TPC Sawgrass, but he is best remembered here for his battle with the dreaded "yips" — in this case, he could not initiate his backswing — during the 2012 Players. A year earlier at the Texas Valero Open, Na made a 16 — the highest score in PGA Tour history on a par-four.

"Seems like those two things are never going to leave me," Na said with a smile.

If Na can close the deal the next two days, he knows what it could mean. Besides winning the PGA Tour's showcase event and earning $1.8 million, Na just might reinvent his image.

"I think if I win a Players Championship or a major, I think people would maybe get over it," he said.

Na, 31, said he moved on long ago and is better for his experiences.

"I'm mentally tougher because I had gone through that, and I'm a lot happier," he said.

Na returns to TPC Sawgrass with good feelings and playing some of the best golf of his career. He is ranked No. 22 in the world and has finished in the top 20 in his last five stroke-play events, including a tie for 12th at the Masters.

Na, who attended Diamond Bar High and now lives in Las Vegas, also has a comfort level with designer Pete Dye's exacting layout. Na tied for third at TPC in 2009 and tied for seventh in 2012 after he shot a final-round 76 in the final pairing.

"I like this golf course," he said. "I always feel like when I come here that it's like, maybe this is my year."

Na has plenty of work ahead and even more pursuers.

Twenty-five players are within four shots of the lead, including world No. 1 Rory McIlory and world No. 5 Jim Furyk (both at four under) and 2012 TPC runner-up Rickie Fowler (six under).

McIlroy and Fowler short-circuited strong rounds when each tried to reach the par-five 16th hole in two and instead found the water short and right of the green to make bogey.

But McIlroy hit several spectacular shots on the back nine and is poised to join the fray during the final 36 holes.

"A lot can happen, and I feel like I'm in a decent position after two days," McIlroy said.

Tiger Woods has a lot of work to do, but at least he will have a chance. The two-time winner at TPC needed a birdie on his final hole — the par-five ninth — to make the cut of even par on the number.

Meanwhile, several of the world's top players missed the weekend. Seven are ranked in the top 20, led by world No. 2 and Masters winner Jordan Spieth and Masters runners-up Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose.

Spieth hit only 16 of 36 greens in rounds of 75-72.

"I have not worked hard enough since the Masters to have my game," Spieth said. "I sprayed it everywhere."

Kelly, on the other hand, did not miss a green on the back nine and missed only three overall Friday to turn in the week's low round — highlighted by eight birdies.

"If you're missing your iron shots, it's an extremely difficult course to break par at," Kelly said. "I struck the ball well today."

The last of Kelly's three wins on Tour was in 2009 in New Orleans, but he will look to join 2009 TPC winner Fred Funk as the tournament's oldest champion.

Kelly will play in the final group with Na, whose only win came in 2011 in Las Vegas. Na has been in the final pairing at TPC Sawgrass before, but said he is in a totally different position now.

"I was dealing with a lot of stuff a few years ago," he said. "I'm thinking that I've got a better shot this time."

egthompson@orlandosentinel.com

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