HARTFORD, Conn. – If you took a poll of the classiest, nicest and most liked and respected players on the PGA Tour, Tony Finau would be somewhere near the top – if not there. He’s certainly in my Top 5 in 51 years in journalism covering mostly golf.
Tony Finau always had a smile on his face and was a challenger in numerous tournaments every year but spent much of his time having to answer when he thought he was going to win again. He captured the 2016 Puerto Rico Open in a playoff, then went an astonishing 1,975 days and registered 39 Top-10 finishes, including eight runner-up finishes, without a win before not ever having to answer THAT question again.
Years of frustration and heartache FINALLY ended Monday when Finau shot a closing 6-under-par 65 and then parred the first playoff hole to defeat Cameron Smith in the first FedExCup playoff event, The Northern Trust at rain-soaked Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J.
Fittingly, Finau had to wait an extra day to end his series of close calls, losing with dignity and frequent bouts with a balky putter thanks to Tropical Storm Henri, which dropped nine inches of rain on a course within view of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline, causing the first Monday finish on the PGA Tour since the 2019 Zozo Championship, the record-tying 82rd career victory for Tiger Woods. But Finau’s unwavering belief in himself and his abilities to go with his personable demeanor finally prevailed.
“I have an extreme belief in myself, and I have to,” Finau said after completing 72 holes at 20-under 264. “This game is hard as it is. These guys are so good as it is. If you can’t believe you can beat them, man, it’s just an uphill battle, and I just continue to believe.
“This is extremely special. I thought my first [win] was going to be my most important one, but I actually think it’s this one. It validates the first one, but I’m a totally different player because of how long I’ve had to wait. Nothing has come easy for me. I’ve lost in playoffs, taken second, third in major championships. I’ve persevered and the biggest key is I haven’t given up on myself.’’
The 31-year-old family man from Utah soared to the top of the FedExCup standings for the first time after finding even more resiliency to rally past U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm with a back-nine, 5-under 30 in his 189th career start, 143rd since the win in Puerto Rico. That enabled Finau to talk about victory rather than the steady drumbeat of questions and analysis, most notably after the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open, when Webb Simpson birdied the last two holes to tie and then birdied the first playoff hole to cause Finau’s oldest son, a budding golfer himself, to break into tears.
The PGA Tour then went on its COVID-19 hiatus for three months, leaving Finau to think about what he could have done differently AGAIN to prevent what he called his toughest loss.
“It’s hard losing,” he said, “and it’s hard losing in front of the world.”
Finau tried to improve his work on the greens by changing putters, changing grips, going left-hand low, switching back to conventional. After hitting several spectacular shots in a third-round 68 on Saturday, he said he was going to have a talk with his putter. But given the day off Sunday because of Henri, Finau practiced on the carpet in his hotel room.
“I would say I putted for maybe an hour and a half total,” Finau said. “Just kind of five, ten minutes here and there throughout the day. I didn’t really leave my room all day. I wouldn’t say I found something, but I knew I was putting it nicely.”
Nicely indeed. He one-putted seven of his last nine holes on Monday, though birdies on the 12th and 16th holes were almost kick-ins. So was his eagle 3 at No. 13 after a magnificent 6-iron from 205 yards to 3 feet that was arguably the shot of the tournament.
But there were knee-knockers from 6 feet to save par at the 11th and 18th holes, the type of putts that Finau didn’t make in his victory drought. And he rarely converted from 35 feet, an unexpected bonus, as he did for birdie at the par-3 14th hole.
Meanwhile, Jon Rahm, ranked No. 1 in the world, finally looked human, going 2 over the last four holes in shooting 69 to finish third at 266. Cameron Smith birdied the 17th hole and shot 67 to join Finau at 20 under but sliced his drive out of bounds on the first hole of the playoff, the par-4 18th. The Aussie had vaulted into contention in the third round with a career-best and course-record 60, missing a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to register the 13th sub-60 round in PGA Tour history. His previous playoff loss was in the 2016 Australian Open to 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth.
Players and coach Boyd Summerhays often had to console Finau after a loss, but not Monday, when he celebrated with his caddie and several players before heading off for a celebratory sushi dinner, those close calls no longer a concern. Instead, he could focus on an almost certain second consecutive spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup Team that will face Europe on Sept. 24-26 at Whistling Straits in Haven, Wisc. Finau is now eighth in the Ryder Cup standings with one week left to be among the six automatic qualifiers. If he isn’t in that group, captain Steve Stricker will be hard pressed not to use one of his six picks on Finau, who was a pick and went 2-1 as rookie in Paris in 2018.
“I just fought,” Finau said. “This is pretty cool to be standing here winning a golf tournament. This was my time to win again, and I hope I don’t have to wait another five years to win my next one. … I believe in myself. I believe in my team. I haven’t had the wins to maybe have that type of confidence and belief, but you just have to. I have to believe I can go out there and beat J.T. (Justin Thomas) today, and I can beat Jon Rahm. I have to believe that, and I did, and I continue to do that, and that’s the only reason why I’m sitting here today as the champion.”
Other players who felt like at least partial champions were six who moved into the Top 70 in the FedExCup standings to advance to the BMW Championship that begins Thursday at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md.: Alex Noren (T4), Erik van Rooyen (seventh), Tom Hoge (T4), Harold Varner III (T11) Harry Higgs (T16) and Keith Mitchell, who birdied the last three holes to tie for eighth and move from No. 101 to No. 63. Players who fell out of the Top 70 after missing the cut were Matthew Wolff, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tyrrell Hatton, Martin Laird, Troy Merritt and J.T. Poston.