By John Feinstein
Tony Finau’s first clue that he had a chance to do something really special on Saturday at the Masters came not from a roar in response to a great shot, or even from a feeling that he had just done something spectacular. It came from Rickie Fowler.
Finau had just hit what he thought was a sterling second shot at the par-5 eighth hole, a 4-iron from 260 yards, and started walking up the fairway.
“I thought I had hit a pretty good shot, but there wasn’t much reaction up by the green,” he said. “So it never occurred to me that the ball might be a foot from the hole. Then, as I was walking up to the green, I saw Rickie going down nine and he gave me a thumbs up. I took a look and said, ‘Hey, pretty good,’ and Rickie said, ‘You could have made it.’ ”
Finau settled for an eagle 3, which put him six under par for the day, having started birdie-birdie-birdie and then adding a fourth red number at the par-3 sixth. He added birdies on the two par 5s on the back nine en route to an eight-under-par 64. The round puts him into Sunday’s final group, two shots behind leader Francesco Molinari.
This is Finau’s second Masters. Through 54 holes, he’s showing how well he can play Augusta National on two healthy ankles.
A year ago, on the day before Finau was to make his competitive debut at Augusta National, he had a cool moment during the Par-3 Contest, acing the seventh hole. Thrilled, he started to run in the direction of the green before collapsing in pain, having badly rolled his left ankle. He landed awkwardly, clearly, something was wrong.
It turned out he had torn ligaments but had no structural damage. He was able to tee it up the next day and shoot 68, clearly hobbled, but still able to play. By Sunday, he had finished T-10, his second top-10 finish in a major to go with a T-10 at the 2015 PGA Championship.
His wounded play at the Masters began an excellent 2018 for Finau in the majors: He went into the final round in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock tied for the lead with Brooks Koepka. He hung around the lead all day until a double-bogey 6 at the 18th dropped him into fifth place.
Then he was T-9 at the Open Championship and was one of Jim Furyk’s captain’s picks for the Ryder Cup team. He went 2-1-0 in France, including a 6-and-4 win over Tommy Fleetwood in the singles, after Fleetwood and Molinari had gone 4-0 in fourballs and foursomes.
Finau was very much looking forward to competing on two good wheels this year at Augusta, and played solidly the first two rounds, shooting 71-70 to leave him tied for 16th place going into Saturday’s third round.
“It was actually a great feeling to stand on the first tee Thursday feeling healthy,” he said with a smile. “This is a golf course I like, and I feel like I can play well. Last year, even though it kind of took the pressure off me, it was awkward playing hurt that way. This year, there was none of that.”
Starting 90 minutes ahead of Saturday’s final twosome, Finau quickly moved up the leader board, attracting notice all around the golf course. Rory McIlroy was going through his post-round media paces when someone asked him if he thought he could stage a huge Sunday rally from one under par to perhaps win. McIlroy laughed and nodded in the direction of the scoreboard next to the ninth green.
“Tony Finau’s just shot six under on the front nine,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to come back from there. I imagine there will be other low scores out there, too.”
As usual, McIlroy knew what he was talking about. Finau’s 64 was one of three on the day—Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay also shot that number—helped contribute to the lowest third-round scoring day in Masters history.
Very few golfers can accurately be described as unique, but that’s not true of Finau. He is of Tongan-Samoan descent and grew up in Salt Lake City. He took up golf as an 8-year-old in the summer of 1997 after watching Tiger Woods win the Masters by 12 shots. He dreamed of someday meeting Woods and, beyond that, of being paired with him in the final round of a major championship.
He’ll get to live that dream on Sunday as he will be paired with Molinari and Woods in the final threesome at 9:20 a.m. on what will be a historic Sunday at Augusta. With an ominous weather forecast for the afternoon, Masters officials have taken the unprecedented step of moving up final round tee times, grouping players in threesomes and sending them off on the first and 10th tees.
Finau had scholarship offers in basketball and golf coming out of high school but passed on college to become a professional golfer and compete—along with his brother—in a competition called The Ultimate Game, which carried a $2 million first prize. He didn’t win but made the top 12. Then he and his brother, Gipper, took part in Golf Channel’s “Big Break.”
At 6-foot-4, Finau is probably one of the best athletes on the tour and is one of the young guns who can hit the ball several miles. Think about what he said to describe his second shot at No. 8 on Saturday: “It was 260 yards to the hole, kind of a perfect four-iron for me.”
After “The Big Break,” it was a long and winding road to the PGA Tour. Mini-tours, the Canadian Tour and, finally the Web.com Tour, after he finished T-3 at qualifying school in 2013. He won a Web.com Tour event in 2014, finished eighth on the regular-season money list and has steadily improved since arriving on the PGA Tour in the fall of 2014.
He won in Puerto Rico in 2016—an event played opposite the WGC-Match Play, meaning it didn’t get him into the Masters—and then made it to the Tour Championship in 2017, which got him into last year’s majors.
Finau and his wife, Alayna, have four young children. He is a Mormon and—not coincidentally—one of his heroes in golf is Billy Casper—also a Mormon, also from Utah. Finau met Casper, the 1970 Masters champion, prior to Casper’s death in 2015.
A year ago, after watching Finau limp up and down the hills of Augusta National for four days, a friend of Casper’s gave Finau a ball with the Augusta National logo that Casper had autographed. Finau is carrying it in his bag this week. “Maybe Casper the ghost will appear and we’ll get that green jacket,” Finau joked with Karen Crouse of the New York Times earlier this week.
It’s certainly not out of the question. Like most players, Finau was delighted at the prospect of the early start Sunday brought on by threatening weather.
“A lot less time to twiddle my thumbs,” he said with a laugh. “Just get up, get out there and see what I can do.”
Finau believes that his experience in the final group at Shinnecock last June will help him on Sunday. He has talked in the past about the trophy case he has in his home in Salt Lake City and his desire to continue to fill it up.
“There’s a lot of cool stuff in there,” he said. Then he paused and added, “But there’s plenty of room for a green jacket.”