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Finau brings can-do spirit to Masters

Do you remember the scene at last year’s Masters Par 3 Contest when, in a span of about 25 seconds, Tony Finau rode the emotional wave of making an ace with his entire family there to see it

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Do you remember the scene at last year’s Masters Par 3 Contest when, in a span of about 25 seconds, Tony Finau rode the emotional wave of making an ace with his entire family there to see it, to wildly celebrating, to that cringe-worthy roll that dislocated his left ankle and ensuing pop-it-back-in moment, to then hobbling back toward the tee, suddenly uncertain about his first Masters?

Dumb question. Of course you remember it. Finau does, too. He is asked about it pretty much daily at golf tournaments, the way Justin Thomas gets asked about Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka gets asked about his European Challenge Tour days. Finau’s glory-to-fail moment lives on in YouTube lore, right up there with “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

Tony Finau
The Masters rarely provides cringe-inducing moments of physical injury, but Tony Finau endured one last year and emerged stronger for the experience.

Finau is in Augusta this week with a huge opportunity to change the narrative. A couple of narratives, actually. For one, how does such an immense talent, a man with such incredible power, have only one victory (2016 Puerto Rico Open) to show for 130 PGA Tour starts? That’s an all-out head-scratcher. And one way to let his infamous Augusta Ankle Roll fade to black is to do something much more significant at golf’s first major of spring. As in, win it.

Certainly Finau has the tools to do it. Everyone from Rory McIlroy to Tiger Woods is cognizant of that. Finau, 29, has had a quiet run of late, a handful of middle-of-the-road finishes after two more runners-up showings in late 2018 (WGC China and the unofficial, but star-heavy, Hero World Challenge). He enters this Masters knowing that physically he will be far more equipped to get to his left side to rip long drives on those gettable par-5 holes, and to physically hike those hills and contend for a green jacket.

All of the above will be a far contrast to 2018. When he awoke for the first round on Thursday a year ago, Finau could not put any weight on his left ankle, and had but six hours to find his way to the first tee. He went to the practice area early that morning to see whether playing was even a remote possibility, or if he'd be wheels-up back to Utah that day.

Know this about Finau: He is a gatherer, always collecting, always picking up something valuable for his journey. Smiling and playful, he still bounces around the PGA Tour much like a newborn deer frolics carefree through the woods. He is wide-eyed, attentive, and forever learning something. Last year’s Masters, in which he tied for 10th, taught him a good deal about himself, and about his toughness.

“I feel like my threshold for pain is pretty high,” Finau said, “and I learned that during the Masters. My ankle was bothering me quite a bit, but I was able to play through that pain and still prove to myself, just inside, that I had it more than physically.”

As good of a week as ol’ Augustan Patrick Reed had in Georgia last year, Finau might have run a close second. Once again, he was proving his talents on a big stage, failing to be rattled by the pressure that so many others seem to absorb. When Finau arose on that first Thursday in Augusta, his ankle too swollen to fit into a shoe, his heart was heavy, because he thought he might be derailed for months. A possible “season-ender,” he called it.

So, what transpired over four days at Augusta, it turns out, was a miracle. For one, that he even played, and two, that he competed so well. When Dr. Stuart Love advised Finau that the best thing for his ankle was to keep playing on it, Finau did. For all of our collective gasping, look-away moments at that Par 3 video, Finau never missed a beat.

The Masters will not present the elements of a British Open in Northern Ireland nor be the thumb-screw grinder that a U.S. Open represents. But it's no complete birdie-fest, either. Patience is valuable around those storied hills at Augusta, and Finau has it. He’s a bomber, but his gear is not always locked into Go for Broke. He made a huge jump in putting last season (from 136th in strokes gained to 53rd), something that could serve him nicely on the slickest, most confounding putting surfaces this side of Oakmont.

Mostly, Finau seems ready to make the next logical step in his steady ascension. At the recent Ryder Cup near Paris, he got as much out of being a part of the team room, hanging out with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, as he did performing so well on the golf course (he thumped previously unbeaten Tommy Fleetwood, 6 and 4, in singles). One victory in 130 starts may be a high mystery, but the fact that Finau is ranked 15th in the world surprises no one. Since the start of 2016-17, Finau has posted 20 top-10 finishes. He is knocking. Within him simmers a belief, an attitude, that something bigger awaits.

“The days I see him down and negative? I can’t really remember a day like that,” said Boyd Summerhays, who has coached Finau for five years. “He definitely moves forward. He’s always learning something. I do think his mindset has helped him be so consistent. He’s very patient on a golf course.

“Tony has genuine self-confidence. I think Tony would have that even if he wasn’t a golfer. You’d meet him and think, ‘Hey, this guy has swag.’ That helps him a lot. His self-confidence isn’t only golf-based. … We both agree, when he gets that next win, it’ll open up the floodgates.”

Ah, that next win. That elusive next win. Should it happen this week, it will be historic, life-altering and momentum-building. All those things. And it would change the story as it now is written on Tony Finau.

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