AUGUSTA, Ga. – Crouching over the turf, his left shin pointed one way and his ankle the other, a single thought entered Tony Finau’s mind.
Don’t get carted off in an ambulance.
Because that’s what anyone who watched the graphic video would have expected. Celebrating a hole-in-one during Wednesday’s Masters Par 3 Contest, Finau raced off the tee box, wheeled around to see his family’s reaction, and then felt searing pain in his left foot.
From elation to horror, in a split second.
“Seeing it,” said Boyd Summerhays, Finau’s swing coach, “your heart just sinks.”
It looked like a calamitous end to his feel-good Masters debut, but friends and family stopped doubting Tony Finau a long time ago.
An opening 68 while hobbling around Augusta National fit neatly into his improbable life story.
After all, this is a 28-year-old who learned the game from his father, Kelepi, whose only knowledge came from what he’d read in Jack Nicklaus’ book, “Golf My Way.” Money was tight, really tight, so Tony honed his swing as a youngster by smacking balls into a mattress in the garage of their cramped duplex. Though his family couldn’t afford a coach, range balls or membership dues, he blossomed into a prodigious winner at the junior level. He turned pro and was just starting to find his way when his mother, Ravena, died in a car crash. She was only 47.
“I had to dig down really deep inside,” he said in 2016, “not just for my personal life but also my faith: How does this happen? Where do I go from here? To lose somebody that close to you, and the manner that she did, that was really, really tough.”
Looking to jump-start his floundering career, he competed on Golf Channel’s “Big Break” reality show but reached another dead end. Needing a spark, he hooked up with Summerhays, who harnessed his awesome power, improved his control and strengthened his short game. A year later, Finau became a PGA Tour winner and, now, a top-35 talent playing his first Masters.
“I feel like my back’s been up against the wall my whole life,” Tony said. His father, even after all of these years, was reduced to tears on Thursday.
And yet Finau’s compelling backstory didn’t seem to matter at the Par 3 Contest. The golf gods tend to frown upon those who run at Augusta National, and so down went Finau, the irony impossible to ignore. Six-foot-four and built like an NFL wide receiver, he is considered one of the most athletic players in the game, capable of throwing down tomahawk and windmill dunks. But there he was, clutching his dislocated left ankle after a celebrating a hole-in-one, hoping he didn’t need to be stretchered off.
“I feel like I’m a good athlete,” he said, “and to see myself roll an ankle on an easy, little backpedal wasn’t really athletic.”
Finau nonchalantly popped his ankle back into place – “I saw where it was,” he said, “and I saw where it needed to be” – and then made a few wobbly steps before signaling for the rest of his family. He somehow finished the last two holes.
“I knew he hurt it real bad,” Summerhays said. “I could just tell from his body language. He was really nervous about the results.”
But those results were encouraging. His X-ray on Wednesday night came back negative, so he spent the night with his foot elevated and hooked up to a machine that reduced the inflammation. Early Thursday morning, he underwent an MRI, which revealed no ligament damage, just a high-ankle sprain. His ability to play was simply a matter of pain tolerance.
“I had looked forward to this week for a really long time,” he said, “and to see the possibility of that slipping away … I had the confidence that I would come back, but I wanted to play now, and I wanted to play this week. Waiting for another opportunity to play my first Masters, whenever that was, it was going to be hard for me to swallow.”
Finau showed up an hour and 20 minutes before his tee time, with a pronounced limp and a thick white wrap above his low-top Nike shoes. Instead of warming up on the flat range, he initially headed to a hilly spot in the short-game area. There, he tried a series of shots from every possible lie – uphill, downhill, sidehill, hanging – to test his stability. Still, Summerhays said, “His mind wouldn’t let him go into that left ankle.”
So he made a few adjustments. Finau shifted his alignment to the left. Then he put the ball further back in his stance, so he could put more weight on his right side. Even as he worked his way through the bag, he never swung up fully onto his right toes, opting to remain almost flatfooted.
After receiving a few minutes of treatment, he headed back out onto the far-right side of the range, carrying two bags of balls, though just a handful would have sufficed. The entire range session lasted only 14 minutes, and he hit just four drivers.
“He was in pain, but nothing overwhelming,” said his caddie, Greg Bodine. “And even if it was, I think he still would have made it to the first tee. He’s worked his whole life to get to this spot.”
All of his family was on hand to celebrate what should have been a momentous achievement, the culmination of so many years of hard work and sacrifice. Near the practice putting green, he hugged Kelepi, decked out in a white cap and polo with Finau’s personal TF foundation logo stitched on the front. He bumped fists with his brother, Gipper, another former teen phenom. Before teeing off, he patted Stuart Love, his physiotherapist, on the shoulder. “Thanks, Doc,” he said. “I’ll see you after.”
And then something bizarre happened. The longer Finau played, the better his foot felt. He erased an opening bogey with a birdie on 2. Then he flagged a 225-yard 5-iron on 4. Relying on tips from Billy Casper and Johnny Miller, he added birdies on Nos. 8, 9, 13 and 15 to move into the solo lead at 4 under, proving, perhaps for the first time, that pro golfers really are tough guys.
“I told him: ‘You can’t say you’re an athlete and then you can’t celebrate. That’s gonna take that status away,’” Kelepi said, chuckling. “So he said, ‘I’m going go prove it tomorrow.’”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Finau holed his par putt for an opening 68, leaving him just two shots back of the lead. After a wild 24 hours, he had only one explanation.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle.”