If Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle at the 15th hole in the 1935 Masters is known as “the shot heard around the world”, then Tony Finau’s ace at the seventh hole of the Par-3 Contest has become “the spill that has gone viral around the world.”
If you somehow have managed not to see it yet, Google his name and ankle injury. Spoiler alert: It isn’t for the faint of heart.
When Finau’s ball disappeared in the hole on Wednesday for his 12th career ace, he lost his mind.
“I just started sprinting,” he said.
The 28-year-old first-time Masters competitor spun around to share the moment with his family at the tee, backpedalled and took a gruesome tumble during his celebration. Finau dropped to a knee, reached for his ankle, and had to pop the bone back into place.
Finau is a lanky 6ft 4in, the longest driver on the PGA Tour this season, and capable of doing a tomahawk dunk like his cousin, Jabari Parker of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. But much like World No1 Dustin Johnson, who had to withdraw prior to the Masters last year after injuring his lower back when he slipped on the steps of his rental home, Finau’s debut at Augusta National appeared in jeopardy. How does this possibly happen in back-to-back years to the two most athletic golfers on Tour?
“To see myself kind of roll an ankle on an easy backpedal wasn’t really athletic,” he said. “I’ve seen the video replay over in my head million of times.”
As a youth, Finau, who is of Tongan and Samoan descent, was a champion at fire-knife dancing. He has a few scars to show for it.
“If you catch it on the wrong side of the stick, you burn your hands,” he said. “It’s kind of a hook and a knife at the top of it. So you could also cut yourself, and I did that a lot as a kid.”
So, the high-ankle sprain he suffered on Wednesday is a mere flesh wound in comparison. Finau had worked all his life for this moment and nothing was going to stop him from competing despite feeling as though he needed a cane, he said. After a fitful night of keeping his ankle iced and his leg elevated, Finau woke at 6am, and underwent an MRI at 7am. There was no significant structural damage. He took neither shots nor pills to dull the pain, but rather wrapped it in tape to immobilise it, and in what he termed “a matter of mind over matter”, shot a 4-under 68, tying for the second-lowest score of the opening round with Matt Kuchar.
“I feel like my back’s been up against the wall my whole life,” said Finau, who played with a noticeable limp at times, “so something like this is just another part of the story, I guess.”
The story of how Finau defied the odds could be golf’s version of the Hollywood blockbuster “Blindside,” in which Michael Oher turned a love of football into a college scholarship and eventually NFL riches. Finau is the third of nine children in his family, and originally it was brother Gipper, then 5 who became enthralled by watching the dominating performance of Tiger Woods winning the 1997 Masters. That motivated Finau’s mother, Ravena, to ask her husband, Kelepi, to teach the boys the game. This despite the fact that Finau’s father never had swung a golf club.
“I thought golf was a game for sissies and old rich guys,” said Kelepi.
According to research compiled by the National Golf Foundation, Finau had a 1-in-250 chance of becoming a golfer. Not a professional golfer, but even playing the game at all. The deck is stacked against children without a parent who plays golf picking up the sport.
Lessons and buckets of balls were beyond the family’s means, so Kelepi, who worked in cargo at Delta Air Lines, checked out instructional books and videotapes at the library. Golf My Way by Jack Nicklaus became his bible, and he plastered frame-by-frame images of the Golden Bear’s swing to their garage walls. Sets were purchased at Salvation Army. The boys blasted balls off carpet into a mattress. It wasn’t long before they ripped through a blanket that hung as a target and replaced it with a net.
They could chip and stroke putts at a nearby par-3 course, which is why the brothers learned to play from the green back to the tee. Only when they could shoot par on the short course did they graduate to a regulation-length course, Rose Park, in Salt Lake City. Finau says he was 9 when he first hit a driver.
He turned pro at 17, and beat around golf’s bush leagues for several years. He failed to advance through the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School five times, and doubt crept in. “Some of the years I was on the mini tours, yeah, I asked myself, Am I good enough or not?” he said.
His biggest setback left him disconsolate. On the way home from a wedding over Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, Finau’s sister was at the wheel when the car flipped and Ravena, the backbone of the family, was killed near Elko, Nevada. They say the heart of a man is measured in times of strife. Losing his mother deepened Finau’s resolve. He resumed working with his father, found his old groove, and regained his assurance. He made the PGA Tour in 2015, won the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, and entered this week ranked No34 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
But did anyone think he’d be able to play let alone contend in the Masters after his gruesome injury?
In another day of wild twists at Augusta National, Finau’s ankle remains one of the fascinating stories of this Masters. Moving the ball back in his stance and placing less weight on his pivot foot, Finau battled to a 74 yesterday after holing a 4-foot birdie putt at 18 to finish at 2-under 142 for 36 holes. Being in contention heading into the weekend at his first Masters may prove to be Finau’s best painkiller of all.
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