JERSEY CITY, N.J. – One thousand, nine-hundred and seventy-five days. That’s how long Tony Finau wandered the winless abyss. But to the 31-year-old with the boyish smile, it felt so much longer.
Between the 2016 Puerto Rico Open and Monday’s finish at the weather-plagued Northern Trust, Finau evolved into a solid Ryder Cup player, a perennial contender and one of the game’s preeminent dilemmas. In terms of raw talent, few have accomplished less with more in their careers, but in Finau’s defense, nothing has ever come easy.
It took longer than one would have expected to shed the yoke of the mini-tours and he’ll be the first to talk of the toil of the last five years.
“I've worked extremely hard, not only on my game – on my body, to put myself in these type of positions, and eventually I knew it was going to happen,” he said Monday at a soggy Liberty National. “It's hard losing and it's hard losing in front of the world. I've done it already a couple times this year; in playoffs it's happened to me. That made me more hungry.”
Since his breakthrough in ’16, a theme quietly emerged. There were whispers in Tour circles, in hushed tones – Tony couldn’t close. It was unfair, prisoner-of-the-moment, hot-take nonsense, but after a half-decade the nonsense starts to become the narrative.
In more recent terms, this was evident in January at The American Express. He started the final round in Palm Springs, California tied for the lead and closed with a 68 to finish four shots behind champion Si Woo Kim. In the immediate aftermath, Finau sought out the silver lining.
“Usually when I walk off the 72nd hole I have a pretty good sense of how long it's going to sting. I'm pretty encouraged right now,” he said. “I've been working on some things in my golf swing and I was able to hit a lot of good shots this week and so I know I'm heading in the right direction.”
He was close the following week at Torrey Pines, where he finished a distant runner-up, and again at the Genesis Invitational, where he lost a playoff to Max Homa. Again, Finau said all the right things, checked all the right boxes, clung to all the familiar cliches.
“I’m disappointed,” he conceded at Riveria. “But, man, I shot 64 today on a day where I needed to just get into the playoff. As I look back on the week, in the next couple days there’s going to be a lot to grow from.”
It was the classic competitive cat-and-mouse game – did he lose in Palm Springs and San Diego and Los Angeles, or was he beaten? In truth, it was probably a combination of both.
But as the dog days wore on, those opportunities became rare. He posted just two top-10 finishes between February and Monday on the Jersey shore, and when he began the final round at the final Northern Trust – the first playoff stop will relocate to the warmer climes of Memphis starting next year – he was two shots behind a seemingly unstoppable Jon Rahm.
With the weight of 1,975 days weighing on him at a Hurricane Henri-delayed playoff event, he defied every ounce of pressure Tour golf can offer and did what he hadn’t been able to for the last five years, five months.
He birdied No. 12, eagled No. 13 and birdied the No. 14 – eight strokes in three holes to jockey with Jon Rahm for the lead. Playing in the group ahead, Finau completed a two-stroke swing with another birdie at the 16th hole, combined with Rahm’s bogey at No. 15, to take outright possession of the lead for the first time.
“I made a great birdie on 12 and I knew 13 was downwind and I was going to, with a good drive, I was going to have a look for eagle,” said Finau, who closed with a day’s best 65 for a 20-under total. “I didn't want to shy away from that pin and I flushed it and then I was kind of on my way.”
For the player who had been questioned so many times it was his performance on the 18th hole, with the Hudson River looming right and non-native grass and manufactured mounds poised left, where he delivered – twice. First in regulation as he clung to a one-stroke lead with a perfect drive into the left-center of the fairway and again in overtime to beat Cameron Smith. There were no more distinctions – did he win the biggest event of his career, did Smith lose? – just a singular outcome after so many painful near-misses.
“I have an extreme belief in myself, and I have to. This game is hard as it is,” Finau explained. “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.”
That belief was tested over the last five years; it had to be. No amount of self-confidence can sustain unnourished for that long.
At Liberty National, the athlete did his thing. The 6-foot-4 former high school basketball star was second in the field in driving distance, behind only major-champion-turned-long-drive-competitor Bryson DeChambeau. But this was a testament to Finau’s iron play (first in the field in proximity to the hole) and a sublime short game that delivered at the most crucial moment, when he missed the 72nd green and needed to convert a 6-footer for par.
It was, by any definition, a fearless performance at a crucial moment. Not only did the victory pad Finau’s position on the FedExCup postseason list, it also likely secured him a spot on captain Steve Stricker’s Ryder Cup team later this year – one way or the other.
But more importantly, it ended one of the game’s most inexplicable title droughts and quieted any whispers about Finau’s ability to close. On Monday those whispers turned to cheers – even with little on-course fanfare – for a truly clutch performance.