News & Opinion

Finau birdies his way into Ryder talk

ST. LOUIS – By Sunday evening at the 100th PGA Championship, the U.S. Ryder Cup team had eight of its 12 spots filled. U.S. captain Jim Furyk will add four more players in the weeks ahead. Monday morning at Bellerive Country Club, he said the door is wide open. 

When he looks up, hopefully he will see 6-foot-4-inch Tony Finau standing in his doorway. Finau no doubt is in the mix as Furyk studies potential team additions in the next few weeks. Sure, Finau hasn’t won nearly enough in his four seasons on the PGA Tour. (He won the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, an opposite-field event.) But put that aside for one moment and consider this: Finau is made for the Ryder Cup.

Tony Finau, a long-driving birdie machine, makes a strong case to be a captain’s pick on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Tony Finau, a long-driving birdie machine, makes a strong case to be a captain’s pick on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

He’s a long hitter who has greatly improved his putting, makes tons of birdies, and best of all, seems to perform his best on the biggest stages. He was the only player at the PGA who’d finished inside the top 10 in the year’s first three majors. Furyk is going to need some special players if the U.S. is to win a Ryder Cup on foreign soil, something last done in 1993. 

The club pool sits just outside of the scoring area at stately Bellerive, and when Finau finished his 72nd hole of the PGA Championship he carried the appearance of a man who might just jump in. It had been a crazy week. 

Finau had a “random” Thursday-Friday tee time alongside his potential captain and another promising potential Ryder Cup rookie, Xander Schauffele. Furyk didn't ask for the pairing, but he enjoyed it. If you're Finau, you can’t get a better shot at auditioning for the boss, right? Well, Finau promptly stepped out and played his first nine holes in 5 over par. He was spraying the ball all across St. Louis. 

Then he gathered himself and settled down. Kept confident. That’s another good thing about Finau. There never is much panic in the guy. Last spring at the Memorial, he sat three shots outside the Friday cutline with three holes to play, knew he needed to birdie in, and did. Another made cut. Getting to the last two rounds at Bellerive was equally important, and he worked hard and made it on the number. In doing so, he put together one of the zaniest rounds of the PGA Tour season: 10 birdies, a triple bogey and three bogeys. The round had been suspended Friday by rainfall and didn’t finish until Saturday, but Finau had shot 4-under 66 to earn a chance to play on. He was dizzy.

“Man, it was crazy,” Finau said Sunday after tying for 42nd. “It was a crazy week for me. There was a lot of great, and a lot of ‘not great.’ I think I made like 25 birdies this week (he made 24) and only finished 3 under. That’s kind of nuts. 

“I hit a lot of uncharacteristic shots. I really don’t hit it out of play a lot, at least as of late. The last 18 months I’ve been hitting it really nice. So, it was a funny week emotionally. I started to run out of patience at the end.”

Of course, just when he started to, he flipped a switch and ran off three birdies over his final five holes. Finau, ranked 30th in the world, has the talent and game that could lead him to break out in a hurry, just as Brooks Koepka has done. Finau has power (third on Tour, at 316.9 yards), enough finesse (Finau has worked to dial down his irons), and finally, he’s more comfortable with the putter. Furyk came away from his Finau/Schauffele pairing impressed by both. 

“Xander was just overall solid. He got off to a very poor start and was very unflappable,” Furyk said. “And Tony made a pile of birdies. He’s explosive with the firepower and how far he hits it and the ability to make a bunch of birdies. I was impressed with his putting, to be honest with you. I knew he hit it far, and kind of knew how he played, but he really rolled the ball well.”

U.S. players had a nice week in the season’s final major, but Bellerive (wide and soft) and Le Golf National outside Paris (tight and tougher) are two very different courses. Furyk has been to Le Golf, where the matches will be played Sept. 28-30, enough to know the course, and he has said there will be a certain style needed to be successful there. It’s a ball-striker’s track – similar to, say, TPC Sawgrass – but you win Ryder Cups with stellar putting and lots of birdies. And the guts to want to be on that big stage. 

Finau ranks 80th in strokes gained putting (that’s better than three of the first eight on the team), and Bellerive aside, is a solid ball-striker (19th in strokes gained tee to green). He is tied for 14th in birdie average, making 4.05 per round. Of Furyk’s current eight, only three (Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth) have a better average.

Finau was part of a small traveling group that visited Le Golf and played leading into the British Open at Carnoustie. He loved the place. Conventional wisdom says that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be part of this team as captain’s selections, and that would leave two spots. Right now, Justin Thomas is the team’s lone rookie (and a major winner). There are veterans outside the top 10 in points who have played Ryder Cups, such as Kevin Kisner, Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson. Bryson DeChambeau, Schauffele and Finau, all without Ryder Cup experience, have played well enough to catch the captain’s eye.

All Finau needs is a few solid weeks and a phone call. 

“When you play match play, birdies are a must,” Finau said. “Making a lot of birdies is a great thing. Big numbers aren’t going to take you out of a tournament. I think I showed him [Furyk] that this week. I’m putting better than I ever have. I had some uncharacteristic shots off the tee, but if he’s looking for guys that can putt, I’m putting very well right now. 

“I know I’m going to make birdies. … I think I could bring a lot to the table. Any time you watch me play, there’s always fireworks. Hopefully I have a chance to do that in September.”

The captain is a bright guy. Hopefully he sees Finau in the doorway. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62