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2020 Masters: Tony Finau’s countdown finally ends

Tony Finau at Augusta National for 2020 Masters
Tony Finau possesses another gear with the driver, but he rarely shifts into overdrive on the PGA Tour, some of the circuit’s longest hitters acknowledge. Will he let it all out for Augusta National at this week's Masters?

After playing in the final group in 2019 with eventual winner Tiger Woods, Finau gets another shot at Augusta, and he’s ready for it

How long has Tony Finau had the Masters on his mind? Only since, well, April 14, 2019, when he removed his cap, shook the hand of champion Tiger Woods on the 18th green, and made his way to the scoring area next to the stately two-story clubhouse that watches over Augusta National Golf Club. When the wheels of his courtesy car churned down Magnolia Lane after his final-round 72 and his T-5 finish, Finau already was thinking about his next visit. Little could he know then that there would be 578 days between tournament rounds in Augusta.

This spring, in the weeks leading up to the Masters as it still remained in its traditional April date, Finau said he was counting down the days “like a fan would.” And then the COVID-19 pandemic sidetracked everything, displacing lives, suspending and canceling schedules, plans and events, and here we are. A Masters being played in November, with no patrons, and no second-nine roars? Finau will be amped up just the same. This place is that special. Augusta National is his penny-candy store, inflatable bounce house, winning PowerBall ticket and Christmas morning, all rolled up into one setting underneath the brilliant dogwoods and pines.

For Finau, there is no place quite like Augusta National, and no tournament quite like the Masters. Forget for a moment that Finau’s needle is stuck on one PGA Tour victory (2016 Puerto Rico Open), one of those peculiar anomalies that simply defies logic for a complete player with $20 million in PGA Tour earnings already in the bank. (We’ll get to that.) The emotions alone that rise inside Finau when he daydreams about Augusta should land him highly on any Masters office pool short list. So should this: Since 2017, only one player, Brooks Koepka, owns more top 10s at majors than Finau. Koepka has eight (four of them victories); Finau, Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele have seven apiece.

The Masters is the tournament that Finau viewed all those years back on a television set in his family’s modest home in Salt Lake City, when Woods was busy thumping the field, winning by 12 strokes at age 21. That was 1997. Young Tony, then 7, was inspired and fueled as he watched this history unfold, witnessing a young man of color capturing one of the biggest events in sports at Augusta National. He thought to himself, How cool. Yeah, I want to do THAT with my life.

And so he has, rising to ninth in the world at one juncture (he now ranks 17th), though it never has been easy. His path wasn’t traveled through lessons at a swanky country club, but by beating worn balls until his hands throbbed, striking shots from a thread-bare carpet into a mattress at home. Tony and his brother, Gipper, used a pitching wedge that his dad purchased at a second-hand store for 50 cents. “He still has it, my first pitching wedge and driver,” Finau said of his father. He smiled at the thought. “The grip is super slick.”

Finau, 31, already has packed 12 boxes of memories into two Masters starts. There was the Par 3 Contest ace in 2018, the wild backpedaling celebration with his family watching, and the ensuing dislocated left ankle pop (and shiver-inducing replacement) seemingly heard ’round the world. Finau somehow would will himself to a 10th-place finish four days later. That showed heart. (The ankle took nearly a year and half to heal fully.) One year passed from that first Masters and Finau was there on Sunday at Augusta National, playing in the final grouping, right alongside Woods, the icon who’d inspired him to play golf all those years earlier. Woods was chasing his fifth Masters title, and first since 2005. Really, could it get any more electric? Finau didn’t leave with a champion’s green jacket, but neither was he awestruck in the moment. That’s saying something, considering that one man was securing his 81st PGA Tour victory and the other was chasing his second.

“I get asked all the time, What was it like playing with Tiger?” Finau said. “It was a lot different than I thought it was going to be in the sense that I just felt that I belonged there. There was no ‘fan-girling,’ no Oh, my goodness … it was straight up I’ve earned this, and I feel like I belong on this tee box with the best player in the world. That may sound a little arrogant, but that’s just how I felt. That’s how I just feel in general.”

There are at least six solid reasons to keep an eye on Finau this week at the Masters:

1. He loves the golf course and its massiveness;

2. He drives it great, with plenty of length;

3. Augusta National is a second-shot golf course, and Finau is a strong iron player;

4. Finau’s lag putting is quite underrated, and can prove pivotal in handling Augusta National’s tricky green complexes;

5. Finau has shown a knack for performing on the game’s big stages;

6. He arrives at Augusta in some pretty steady form (five top-10 finishes in his past 10 starts, including T-4 and T-8 at the last two majors).

Here’s a well-kept secret: Finau also hopes to bring something extra in the bag with him this week. For all the buzz about Bryson DeChambeau and his recent distant gains, Finau may have more reserve yardage in the tank than anyone on the grounds. Ask players who is longer, DeChambeau or Cameron Champ, and the answer often returned is “Tony.” (Said Champ at the PGA Championship, “Tony is the longest one out here, by far. If he swung normal, he would fly me.”) Finau used to be much longer than he is today. Instead of trying to gain yards on his long road to the PGA Tour, Finau had to dial back, trying to find more control.

He ranked 13th on Tour in driving distance last season (309.8 yards) without really letting it loose. His rhythmic, three-quarter swing is mostly about finding fairways. But as the Masters has approached, Finau has been picking moments to try to add speed. There’s a video of him at home thrashing a drive traveling at 206 mph ball speed. (For perspective, at Tour events, he usually is in the mid-180s.) If Finau can summon the little extra to tack on a few more yards at Augusta, it can do things such as taking deep fairway bunkers out of play on Nos. 1 and 8, or leaving shorter irons for his approaches on par 5s.

“He is intending to air it out a bit more, for sure, this week,” Finau’s longtime coach, Boyd Summerhays, said on Sunday. “When you talk about distance, I definitely think Tony has the highest gear.”

The elephant in the room when discussing Finau is that he has but one victory in his 167 career starts (he has 40 career top 10s, nearly a quarter of his starts). He certainly has rapped on the door his fair share. Sometimes not winning has been circumstantial. Somebody simply played better. Twice he lost in playoffs to red-hot finishers (Schauffele beat him at the 2018 WGC HSBC Champions in China, and Webb Simpson finished birdie-birdie-birdie to clip him at the 2020 Phoenix Open). This summer at the Memorial, Finau reached 12 under to lead on the back nine on Saturday afternoon, made two late doubles and struggled to 78 on Sunday, sliding to T-8. That one was on him.

“Memorial was one that Tony felt that he beat himself, and that doesn’t happen very often,” Summerhays said. “In general, he knows he needs to have a few more hot putting weeks. That’s all it is. … I think he got over a hurdle at the PGA (T-4). He had 66 in the final round, and he made a bunch of key putts. If he just keeps putting himself there, eventually the math is going to add up.”

Added Finau, “I’m a competitor. As much as other people want me to win, I want to win, too. I know the time will come. I just keep paying my dues. If I continue to make strides with the putter, I think that’s what can take me to the next level.”

The good news is that he feels as confident with the putter as he ever has. His 28.57 putts per round ranked 38th on Tour last season. All those close shaves trying to collect trophies should make that second victory that much sweeter when it does arrive. Oh, it will. Should that “next one” fall at Augusta National this week, anyone who’d call himself “surprised” has not been watching very closely. Winning certainly would not be a surprise to Tony Finau. He’s been dreaming of that day at Augusta since he was standing in front of a television at the age of 7.

Can he envision himself donning green on Sunday? “No question,” Finau said.

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