Tony Finau: Mind over matter

Tony Finau is one of the most fascinating players in world golf and he is one to watch in the 2020 Masters. Whether his fortunes rise or fall, just don’t expect him to jump up and down about it, seriously. Finau spoke to Robin Barwick about a golf career that has so far been much defined by the Masters, right from the start

For two and half days in April 2018, Tony Finau was soaking up the treasured atmosphere of Masters week at Augusta National; that sunny tranquility juxtaposed with the buzz of anticipation for the first major of the year. It was Finau’s first Masters and the realization of a long-held dream.

“I played practice rounds with Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Vijay Singh,” starts Finau, now 31, who earned his first Masters invitation by qualifying for the 2017 season-closing Tour Championship. “Walking around that place, knowing I would be teeing up in my first Masters, it was extremely cool. The Masters is the best sporting event to watch in my opinion and I was on cloud nine.”

The week got even better for Finau at the 7th hole of the Wednesday Par 3 Contest, when his tee shot spun back from the edge of the green and into the cup for an ace, but then in an incredibly cruel twist, Finau’s Masters debut suddenly crashed when he partially dislocated his left ankle while celebrating.

You have almost certainly seen the footage of the incident at some point, as hard to watch as it is. It seemed an innocuous jig down the grassy slope until Finau’s left foot gave way and was turned inside by a near right angle, before the golfer calmly reached down and eased the joint back into place.

“I had so much adrenaline when I hit the hole-in-one that when my ankle went I was not in much pain, to be honest,” recalls Finau, who appeared to walk it off. “I played the last two holes of the Par 3 Contest because I was anxious to see how it felt.”

He may have walked off the course but Finau’s Masters preparations had been dispatched into nearby Ike’s Pond. Out of horrible misfortune a glimmer of hope came from Finau’s first-round tee time of 12:43 the next day—eight three-balls from the bottom of the start sheet—which granted around 20 hours to see if he could play. An early slot on the Thursday morning would have almost certainly forced Finau to withdraw.

Tony Finau and family get into their stride at Augusta National’s Par 3 Contest in 2018

“The worst pain was that night and the following morning,” admits Finau. “I don’t know if I slept that night because I was going on and off with an ice wrap and a heat wrap. I struggled to sleep, not just because of the pain and the treatment but mentally; man, I figured my chances of playing in the Masters for the first time had just slipped. When it was time to get up in the morning to get an MRI and an x-ray I couldn’t walk or put any weight on my left foot. My manager had to help me down the stairs and into the car. The pain was 10 out of 10 on the Thursday morning and I really thought my chances of playing were pretty much gone.”

Finau was lifted from the nadir of the trauma when the x-ray and MRI came up clear.

“I was told it was up to my pain threshold whether I could play and at that point I knew I wanted to give it a go. Once I knew I wouldn’t hinder the healing process I had some pretty intense massage treatment, trying to increase the blood flow and movement. That was excruciating pain but I understood the process.”

And Finau was also advised his ankle would recover better without any pain-killing shots, so ibuprofen pills were all he took, along with a lot of soft tissue massage work and strapping. The mobility in Finau’s ankle started to return, so instead of heading home to sit back and keep his foot raised like any normal person, Finau headed to Augusta’s practice ground to work out with coach Boyd Summerhays how he could keep the golf ball straight without transferring weight through his left side, all before his 12:43 tee time in the first round of majors golf of the year.

Finau celebrates his ace just before misfortune strikes

“I could not apply much pressure on my left foot so I started my swing with my weight back, kind of like Henrik Stenson,” explains Finau. “When I took the club back I really had to press into that right foot and then when I hit the shot I had to stay back there and not transfer my weight.

My launch angle became much higher on every club. That was something I had to deal with through the Masters.”

It was some kind of miracle that Finau even made it to the first tee that day. He bogeyed his first ever Masters hole—as do many of the world’s finest healthy players—before pulling the shot back at the par-five second hole and settling down to shoot 68, four under par. It was one of the more remarkable 68s in Masters history. Having made it to the weekend, Finau closed his debut with six straight birdies on the back nine on Sunday afternoon to finish tied for 10th, thereby securing his invitation to the 2019 Masters.

“I look back at how I played and it was a pretty cool feat,” he says. “When I walked off the 72nd hole I will never forget the feeling: it felt as if I had won the tournament. Ultimately it was a dream week, the way it happened. I feel like it was meant to be and it goes to show that our minds are stronger than we sometimes realize. If you can have the attitude to never give up then good things can happen.”

Kelepi and Tony Finau

Breaking barriers

A Masters debut is cherished by all who get there, but for Finau his first drive beneath the shady canopy of Magnolia Lane was particularly poignant.

Finau can pin-point the moment he became a golfer. Up until the 1997 Masters, golf was not on the landscape surrounding Finau at all, and why should it have been when at seven years old he was already a budding basketball star in the less than salubrious Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City? There were plenty of hoops in Rose Park and no shortage of pick-up games, but golf… what?

Then Tiger Woods, aged only 21 at the time, gave the sport what remains arguably its most significant shake-down ever, over 72 holes at Augusta.

He shot 70-66-65-69 for a total of 270 to beat Tom Kite into second place by 12 shots. 270 remains a scoring record and so does the winning margin, by the first black golfer to win at Augusta. Tom Watson, aged 47 at the time, played brilliantly to finish fourth but no-one noticed.

Woods set 20 Masters scoring records that week and remains the youngest to don the Green Jacket, the first of his 14 major victories. Back in Rose Park, Finau was gripped.

“The 1997 Masters kind of changed everything for me,” he says. “That is the reason I started playing golf. The ‘97 Masters drew my eyes to the game. It was very special for my dad, me and my brother [Gipper] to see someone like Tiger win, not only with how classy he was and with what he brought to the game, but to see that guy have the same skin color as ours. It was very meaningful because at that moment we realized that maybe we could have a place in this game. Tiger broke that barrier at Augusta in the ’97 Masters and from then we grew up to love golf and love playing the game.”

But it wasn’t straightforward for the Finaus. Tony was one of seven children of mom Ravena and dad Kelepi. Ravena—who was lost to an auto accident in 2011 at the age of only 47—stayed at home or kept odd jobs while Kelepi was an airport baggage handler. Kelepi would scour local garage sales for cheap second-hand golf clubs and balls for the boys when he could, and he hoisted up an old mattress in the middle of the garage, so it was like a partition down the middle. While Tony would hit golf balls into painted targets on the mattress from one side, Gipper would do the same from the other. Thwack-thud, thwack-thud, thwack-thud, for hours on end. Only occasionally could the boys afford a bucket of balls at a local range so they could actually see their ball flight.

Teenage prodigies Gipper and Tony on the range once Tony had turned pro

The Finau family has Polynesian heritage. Kelepi was born in Tonga while Ravena’s parents were from Tonga and Samoa, and Ravena would organise traditional Polynesian celebrations—luaus—at which Tony and Gipper would perform dances with flaming knives to raise money to fund trips to golf tournaments.

“We would hold the luaus once or twice a year and they would help to fund all the travel and tournaments,” says Finau. “It was a cool thing and serves as testament to my parents: they had two boys who wanted to play golf and they put a lot of time and resources into enabling us to pursue our dreams. When I look back, we didn’t have the money to play golf. Golf is an expensive game and we came from very humble beginnings. Golf shouldn’t have been an option for us but our parents sacrificed quite a bit and I am always humbled by the thought of what they did for us.”

At the local par-3 muni, Jordan River, the boys could hone their short games for free around the practice green, and play nine holes when they had a couple of bucks.

“At Jordan River we learned how to play the game from the green back,” adds Finau. “It was a very good golf course, tree-lined. The longest hole was 165 yards and the shortest was 65 or 70 yards.”

Time to eat at the Finaus

A couple years ago—sadly from a golf perspective—Jordan River was converted into a frisbee golf course.

Some two decades later, Finau is a star of the world game. He edged into the world’s top-10 for the first time during the 2018 FedExCup Playoffs, was one of very few American Ryder Cup players to shine in Paris that fall and now he just needs to convert a couple of his regular top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour into victories, to add to his success at the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. Standing 6-foot-4 and one of the longest hitters on tour, with that deft Jordan River short game to match Finau is too good to own a solitary title for long.

“I believe I can continue to get better,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. I have been able to do some pretty cool things in this game—like being on the Ryder Cup team—but I am hungry for more, to put myself in that type of atmosphere again. I have played well in the majors and I want to put myself back in those positions so I can try and win one. I believe I have a place in this game and my case has never been stronger than it is right now. I have a goal to become the best player in the world. That is a high mountain to climb but my coach, my family and I all believe I can do it. It is going to take a lot of great golf over the next few seasons if it is going to happen but I will continue to chase it.”

Alayna and Tony with children [l to r] Leilene, Sage, Tony Jr. and Jraice

Once Finau had received his invitation to play in the 2018 Masters there were some added emotions swirling around Amen Corner when Kelepi joined him to play a couple early familiarization rounds at Augusta.

“Ever since Tiger in ’97, for me, my dad and Gipper it was always about trying to get to the Masters and Augusta National, so it was very special for me and my dad to share our first visit together. We spent two days there and played it twice with a friend who is a member. To be out there with my dad is something I will never forget.”

 

Finau congratulates Woods on the 18th green at the 2019 Masters

In the third round of the Masters last year Finau shot up the leaderboard when he posted a bogey-free 64, eight under par. He didn’t win of course, but he played the final round with Tiger and witnessed—up-close and personal—his childhood hero claim his 15th major title. Finau finish tied for 5th so after two attempts he is yet to finish outside the top-10 at the Masters. The connection is strong.

Finau was only one among vast legions of people—young and old, black and white, male and female—who took up golf after the ’97 Masters, all dreaming of fist-pumping on Augusta’s 18th just like Tiger, yet out of all of them, Finau is the one who might just turn that dream into reality.

Tony Finau
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