Finau ready to test game in major championship


SPRINGFIELD, Ohio – A rain delay at a U.S. Open sectional qualifier is a curious scene.

Phones chargers fill every outlet, with countless players scrolling through scoring pages for updates. Some veterans reach for a beer, eager to erase the sins of bogeys past, while those not yet of age compare course loads for the fall.

Shortly after the horn blew at Springfield Country Club to signal an hour-long weather delay, the club’s ballroom was filled with a variety of characters, each eager for the storm to pass.

Amidst them sat Tony Finau, coolly chatting with his back to a window that overlooked the course, a rare PGA Tour regular among a sea of unfamiliar faces.

Finau knew he was on the verge of punching his ticket to Chambers Bay, already in the fairway of his 35th hole of the day. Shortly after play resumed, he closed out rounds of 66-67 to put a notable name among the quartet of qualifiers from the 67-player field.

Finau made things look easy Monday, carding only one bogey across 36 holes to finish second. It extends a strong run of good play for the PGA Tour rookie, whose T-8 finish at the Memorial was his fourth straight top-20 result.

Finau now sits inside the top 50 in the FedEx Cup standings, but the 25-year-old has never played in a major. That drought ends next week.

“That’s one of my goals, is just to get in a major,” said Finau, who ranks No. 134 in the world. “Just to get that taste. I’ve never had that taste of the highest level of golf, and that’s playing in a major. It means everything to me at this point in my career.”

Scores: U.S. Open sectional qualifying results

Finau is second on Tour in driving distance, averaging 307 yards per poke, so at first glance his game wouldn’t appear well-suited for Springfield, a claustrophobic Donald Ross layout that barely measures 6,700 yards. But Finau got placed here last year, and while he failed to qualify he at least knew the course – which is more than he could say for his other nearby sectional option.

“I don’t know that it’s a golf course that I really like, but it’s one that I’ve seen at least,” he said. “The one in Columbus, there’s two courses that I haven’t seen, that I’m sure a lot of guys have. So I feel like I’m losing shots already.”

Finau’s gamble paid off, and he will play a course next week that would appear conducive to his long-ball approach. He’ll also bring with him some local knowledge in the form of caddie Greg Bodine, who grew up 10 minutes from Chambers Bay in nearby Lakewood and estimated that he has played the course 15-20 times.

“I got the Pierce County (Wash.) rate when I was in high school,” said Bodine, whose cousin Michael Putnam qualified in the Columbus sectional. “I hit it long and crooked, so I liked it.”

Of course Finau wasn’t the only player to leave Springfield with a smile, as the other three qualifiers proved the U.S. Open’s status as golf’s ultimate meritocracy. While PGA Tour veterans like Troy Merritt and Brian Stuard came up short, medalist honors went to Michael Davan – a 26-year-old with no status on any major circuit.

The third spot went to 19-year-old amateur Nick Hardy, who just wrapped up his freshman year at the University of Illinois. Hardy’s Illini team was eliminated from the NCAA Championships last Tuesday in Florida, and he equated the undulating greens at Springfield to those he had just seen at Concession Golf Club. The rest of the course, though, was reminiscent to the Ross designs he has grown up playing around Chicago.

“This is my home kind of turf,” Hardy said.

The day’s longest wait belonged to 26-year-old Stephan Jaeger, who may have worn a new path around the putting green with his post-round pacing.

Jaeger was among the first players to finish, carding rounds of 66-68, and then quickly began refreshing scores on his phone. It was a familiar situation after he sweated out a spot last month at local qualifying, but it was hardly a welcome position.

“I do not enjoy this,” he muttered to himself as the projections and scenarios began to pour in. Jaeger moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., from Germany at age 17, and was a teammate of former U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox at UT-Chattanooga. A random room assignment at a college event created a connection with a host family, who just happen to be members and residents at Springfield.

Three years after their paths had last crossed, he contacted the host family about this week’s qualifier. They offered him a place to stay, and a little home cooking did the trick.

“Something like this can turn a season around real quick,” said Jaeger, who has made only three of 11 cuts this year on the Tour. “That’s what I’m hoping to do.”

Season assessments can wait, at least for a night – especially for guys like Hardy, Davan and Jaeger who have one prior PGA Tour start between them. Monday was about realizing a dream and punching tickets to a national championship. In a week they will be on equal footing with the best in the game.

The wait is now over. The fun will soon begin.