This isn't a story about ego. It's not one about a player unhappy with his partnership. It's not one about a wife defending her husband from criticism, or two friends and teammates needing to be separated from fighting.
This is a U.S. Ryder Cup feel-good story during a week when there simply weren’t enough such stories for captain Jim Furyk at Le Golf National. In the news conference on Sunday night in Paris, there was a sense that Furyk and the Ryder Cup “Task Force” had failed. The scene wasn’t much different than the aftermath that followed either the massive or heartbreaking road losses in 2006, 2010 or 2014.
But in Furyk's defense, it wasn’t the captain’s fault that Masters champion Patrick Reed would lose his game during the FedExCup Playoffs and go 0-2 as Tiger Woods’ partner in the Ryder Cup, or that Woods would be a shell of himself just five days after his first PGA Tour victory in five years, or that 48-year-old Phil Mickelson would come out pointless in what was probably his last Ryder Cup as a player.
Amidst all the day-after criticism comes the reality. It’s the players, not the captains.
Reed’s shushing of Euro fans in his match against Tyrrell Hatton on Sunday was two days too late. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson lost to the No. 1 most passionate Ryder Cup player of all time, Ian Poulter. Thorbjorn Olesen doesn’t just beat Jordan Spieth. He beats him, 5 and 4.
I’ve been covering Ryder Cups since 1983 and it comes down to the players hitting the shots and making the putts – or not. And besides victories by Justin Thomas and Webb Simpson there was only one performance by an American player on Sunday that stood out. That was by Tony Finau, playing in his first Ryder Cup.
In case you were wondering what that montage represented on the brim of Furyk’s baseball cap on Sunday in France, here’s the answer. The artwork was the design of a Tongan and a Samoan tribe from the Polynesian world where Milton “Pouha” Tony Finau’s family came from before moving to Utah. Tony supplied the team with his hats as a show of cohesiveness.
Earlier in the week, Tony touched the highlights of his back story and the hardships his parents had overcome, touching on how they sacrificed a lot for him to be in the position he was in. Finau didn’t grow up the son of a club pro and an AJGA superstar, the way Justin Thomas did. He was not a Walker Cupper or U.S. Open or Players champion like Webb Simpson. When he showed up for his first lesson with Boyd Summerhays at Davis Park GC, a muni in the Salt Lake City suburbs four years ago, he was wearing basketball shorts and sneakers.
Finau learned with clubs his father would buy in pawn shops and garage sales until the pro at the par-3 course he grew up playing gave him a set of Wilson irons that are still in his dad’s garage. “My parents,” he said, “sacrificed a lot for me to be in this position.”
Tony grew up playing team sports, mostly basketball and a little volleyball, which is why he fit in well in the team room. He knows what to do when he gets the ball, but he’s also humble in an earnest way. During his press conference last Thursday, he talked about how cool it was to inspire kids who came from similar backgrounds in the States and third-world countries to try golf.
Furyk loved Finau and liked what the markings on his hat stood for, wearing it instead of his red captain’s cap during the early stages of the Sunday singles matches. Furyk wanted Finau to see him wearing it when Tony teed off in Match 5 against undefeated Tommy Fleetwood.
With a calm look on his face at 12:53 p.m. local time on Sunday, Finau striped a 4-iron down the first fairway. As he strode off the tee box, he looked to his left and saw his father, Kelepi, and sister, Nola, standing with none other than Michael Jordan.
When MJ was winning six NBA titles in the 1990s, Finau was growing up in a tough neighborhood near the Jordan River Par-3 Course in Salt Lake City. Now here he was, giving Tony a thumbs-up.
Finau would go on to do what no other American had been able to – hand Fleetwood a loss. Finau did it by throwing six birdies at Europe's long-haired star (four fewer than Finau had made when paired with Furyk in Round 2 of the PGA Championship.)
Summerhays sent Finau a text: “You played your best golf on the biggest stage. There is no stage too big for Tony Finau.”
“In the Ryder Cup, you can either handle it or your can’t,” Summerhays told me. “It’s such a huge scene. He did something that will propel him to win a major championship. He was swollen with confidence he was able to do it.”
Finau's 6-and-4 win represented one of only four full points for the U.S. on a day when Furyk’s team needed eight to retain the cup. Instead, they lost by seven, 17 1/2 to 10 1/2. Say what you want about pairings and chemistry, it’s not Furyk’s fault that the U.S. hasn’t won an away-game Ryder Cup for 25 years and counting.
Therein lies the problem on the road for the U.S. Ryder Cup teams. Going back to Europe’s victory over Lee Trevino’s team in 1985, not enough American players have stood up. Tony Finau was 4 years old when that five-point loss at The Belfry kicked off Europe’s domination at home (interrupted only by a U.S. win at the same venue in 1993), and he had been playing golf for only two years when the U.S. came from 10-6 down to win at Brookline.
“I played incredible golf today,” Finau said on Sunday. “I was controlling the ball nicely and made some putts. It was a really hard time for Tommy to get in the match. I’m happy to take care of my part.”
We need to hear more quotes like that on Sunday from American players in the Ryder Cup. We need more selflessness from the entirety of the team. Otherwise, it’ll continue being the captain’s fault, even if it’s not.