Michaux: Bent but not broken, Tony Finau dazzles in Masters debut
Miracle is a word that gets thrown around far too often in the context of sports.
That said, I think we can all agree that Tony Finau walking off the 18th green with temporary possession of the Masters lead, almost exactly 24 hours after his left foot was temporarily detached at the ankle, comes pretty darn close to qualifying.
“To be in this position I’m at now ... nothing short of a miracle if you ask me,” Finau said. “When I woke up this morning, I could barely walk.”
It is hard to fathom the emotional mood swings of the 28-year-old Masters rookie over the past two days. One minute late Wednesday afternoon, Finau was wildly celebrating his ace on the seventh hole of the Par-3 Contest with a mad sprint up the fairway in front of fans, his wife and four kids.
The next minute, after stumbling in his backpedal, he was on the ground with his left foot completely dislocated at the ankle. He casually popped his foot back into place, but his face betrayed a combination of embarrassment and fear that he’d just screwed up his dream of playing in the Masters.
“I saw where (my foot) was and I knew where it needed to be,” he said, admitting his instincts told him to try to pop it back in place. “If it didn’t work, then I would have laid there and been even more embarrassed being pulled out on a stretcher celebrating a hole-in-one.”
That was a terrifying and humbling moment for a 6-foot-4 guy known as one of the most athletic players on tour who can thrill his peers with windmill and tomahawk dunks in basketball.
“He knew there were a lot of people and attention on him and he didn’t want to just lay there and call for an ambulance,” said Greg Bodine, his caddie. “So he just gave it a little nudge and when it popped back in he said it was a good feeling and the pain went away for a little bit. So he knew he did the right thing.”
It was a gruesome sight, shown repeatedly in replays. Despite Finau’s efforts to shake it off and play the last two holes of the Par-3 Contest, everyone on his team knew it was serious.
“He’s worked his whole life to get here, so for that to happen the day before in such a bright moment,” said Bodine. “It kind of went from really sweet to really sour.”
“I looked forward to this week for a really long time, and to see the possibility of that slipping away,” Finau said. “You know, I had the confidence that I would come back, but I wanted to play now and I want to play this week. Waiting for another opportunity to play my first Masters – whether it was next year or another time – was going to be hard for me to swallow.”
The anxiety extended over a sleepless night. X-rays revealed there were no broken bones, but it wasn’t until an MRI at 7 a.m. Thursday that Finau knew there was no significant damage. He could try to play through the pain without fear of making anything worse.
“So we did a lot of praying – just let the kid walk around holy ground one time,” said Finau’s father, Kelepi.
Bent but not broken, Finau went to the range long before his 12:42 p.m. tee time to see whether he could fashion a swing on his heavily taped ankle. One of the longest hitters on tour, he had to compensate by taking the pressure off his pivot foot.
“He’s not putting really any weight on his left side,” Bodine said. “He’s an athlete. He made it work.”
Finau even called it a “blessing in disguise,” the attention on his sore ankle taking his mind off the pressure of making his Masters debut.
“It was quite crazy, all the emotions that I dealt with overnight, but I was more than ecstatic to just be walking to that first tee and be playing in my first Masters,” he said.
After an opening bogey, he made birdies at Nos. 2, 4, 8, 9 and 13 to rise to the top of the leaderboard. If not for late charges by Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar, Finau would have been alone in the lead after his 4-under 68.
“The last thing I told him on the 18th green is how much heart he has,” Bodine said. “You can’t not have heart and play a round like that. He was in pain, but nothing overwhelming. Even if it was, he still would have made it to the first tee. He just wanted to play in the Masters, and I think the cherry on top is that he is competing. We knew if he could swing it, this was possible.”
Finau called it “mind over matter.” It was the adrenaline of a lifelong dream propelling him to the top against all odds – much like the story of his life growing up the son of a Tongan immigrant who had to struggle to give his sons the American dream.
“My story’s quite crazy, and I’m sure most of you guys know it by now,” Finau said of a life that included fire-knife dancing at age 4 and sleeping in cars at junior tournaments before carrying himself to the PGA Tour. “I feel like my back’s been up against the wall my whole life, so something like this is just another part of the story, I guess. But, you know, to sit up here and say I’m surprised? Not really.”
If the previous 24 hours were a minor miracle, Finau hopes to convert it into a major accomplishment as he limps around Augusta National for the next few days.
The extreme highs and lows of his Masters introduction will make a memorable footnote in the ongoing quest to fulfill his dreams.
“I’m happy where I stand,” Finau said after one of the most improbable chapters in Masters lore. “And it’s going to be something that I can just laugh at later in life, no question.”