Ask 100 golf fans to name the best American match-play golfer of the current generation, and you would likely not hear the name Tony Finau once. In some sense, that’s fair — the numbers don’t lie, his record is just above .500 as a professional in all competitions.
He is not, for instance, Justin Thomas. Still, that record disguises a few impressive feats. For one thing, he was one of just two Americans, along with Thomas, to post a winning record at the nightmarish 2018 Ryder Cup in France, a performance capped with a thorough 6-and-4 drubbing of Tommy Fleetwood, who had gone 4-0 to that point at Le Golf National.
For another, many of those losses have come against the likes of Ian Poulter (twice), Kevin Kisner and Hideki Matsuyama — titans of match play. If he’s not among the elites of the format, he at least looked like an underrated force ready to break out with a big result at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.
So far, he’s proving up to the task. Following a 2-and-1 win over Christiaan Bezuidenhout in his opening match, he reached new heights on Thursday with a relatively stress-free 4-and-3 win over Adrian Meronk. That moves him to 2-0 in the group, and a guaranteed spot in the knockout rounds if he wins or ties against Kurt Kitayama on Friday. (Even if he loses, he’ll have a spot in a playoff.)
After a modest start that saw him tied after an ugly double-bogey on the sixth, and only 1-up with a single birdie after eight holes, Finau caught fire, rolling in five straight birdies. The stretch started with a 41-footer on 9 and culminated with a layup on 13 and a pinpoint approach that set up a seven-foot birdie make. Meronk did his best to hang tough and actually matched Finau’s birdies on three of the five holes, but still found himself 3 down with five holes to play. When Finau stuck another approach to seven feet on 15 and converted the birdie, the match was over.
“I had a chance to close the match out yesterday and missed the putt, so I had another chance today and I was able to make it. Apparently I learned something,” Finau joked afterward.
Another reporter, unschooled on Finau’s history at this event, asked him how many times he’d made the Round of 16.
“Yeah, zero,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the goal. So we’ll move ahead to tomorrow, and we’ve got Kurt Kitayama who’s playing great golf and I’m going to have to play well to beat him, so I’m looking forward to that match.”
This actually marks the second time Finau has won his first two matches. In 2018, his first time making the field, he beat Kevin Na and Thomas Pieters before losing to Alex Noren, also undefeated, in a tight 1-up match with a berth in the knockout rounds on the line. Noren went on to take third place that year, while Finau went 1-2 in his next three tries in Austin. (With the Thursday victory he’s now 7-6-1 all-time here.)
After three PGA Tour victories in 2022, Finau is now up to No. 12 in the World Ranking, and has made seven straight cuts to start the 2023 calendar year. That stretch includes a pair of top-10s, but considering the consistency of his game and his newfound nose for winning, he’ll be feeling more ambitious with the Masters and the rest of the majors looming.
If his trajectory includes a major championship in the near future — of his 10 career top-10s, three have come at Augusta — success at the WGC-Match Play is a solid launchpad. Just ask Scottie Scheffler, who despite being seven years Finau’s junior, could function as a model for the ideal version of Finau’s 2022-23 stretch: A bunch of wins leading to a major breakthrough. Opportunity will knock against Kitayama on Friday, and though Finau is something of a late bloomer, he’s more ready than ever before to answer the call.