• Tony Finau's road to his first Masters was almost truncated with a turned ankle. His four-under-par 68 on Thursday has him tied for second on the leaderboard.
By Tim Layden
April 05, 2018

AUGUSTA, Georgia — His story, like so many stories, begins with a journey to America in pursuit of a better life. It begins on the South Pacific island of Tonga and runs through Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and, improbably, to the fairways of Augusta National Golf Club on the first weekend in April. It includes a youth spent running into and away from trouble, and a bolt of inspiration provided 21 years ago by none other than Tiger Woods, who made golf cool for a big, grade-school kid whose mom was trying to convince him and his little brother to play tennis instead of football.

And it was nearly truncated on a breezy Wednesday afternoon, by the most freakish and gruesome of injuries, a rolled left ankle suffered while celebrating a hole-in-one during the Masters’ annual par three contest. But Tony Finau had come too far. There would be a stunning moment of battlefield medicine (or something), a Mormon prayer service in a rented Augusta home, nightlong ice massages administered by his wife, Alayna, the mother of their four children; and on a windless Thursday, a mind-bending four-under-par 68 in the first round of his first Masters.

“I feel like my back has been up against the wall my whole life,” said Finau. “So something like this is just another part of the story, I guess.”

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His father, Kelepi (Gary) Finau—who stood pursing his lips and leaning on a green, canvas folding chair next to the 18th green as the third-oldest of nine children born to him and his late wife, Ravena—rolled in a slippery 15-foot par-saving putt to finish off his round. “He’s been through so much in his life to get here,” said Gary. “He fought too long and too hard to miss this chance.”

Finau’s 68 left him tied with Matt Kuchar, and two shots behind 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth, who shot 66 despite chopping up the 18th hole and giving away a stroke to par. Seven players are tied at three-under, including four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, perennial Masters contender Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Patrick Reed of the U.S. One round in the books, the tournament is appropriately wide open; after an uneven round, Woods is seven shots back, but alive. None of the contenders are more surprising than Finau.

Not because he isn’t a strong player, he’s ranked No. 34 in the world. Not because he hasn’t won previously, he won the 2016 Puerto Rico Open in a playoff. Not because he wasn’t ready, he’s been ready for years. 

But because of what millions of people saw late Wednesday afternoon, and millions more have seen on a continuous loop in the hours since. Finau, like many of the Masters participants, was playing in the par three contest on Wednesday afternoon. The feel-good moment of the event was a hole-in-one by Jack Nicklaus’s grandson, which reduced the Golden Bear to tears. The feel-nauseous moment came when Finau aced the seventh hole and celebrated by running down the fairway, and while running backward, rolled his left ankle and fell to the ground. “A pretty cool moment, followed by one of my most embarrassing moments,” said Finau.

Finau is an exceptional athlete. He played high school basketball and, according to his caddie, Gregory Bodine, “I’ve seen him dunk from a flatfooted start, I’ve seen him windmill. He’s new generation [for a golfer], for sure.” He did not look athletic in stumbling to the ground. And, as his dad said, it was a reminder of one of the course’s many arcane rules: “No running at Augusta.”

Improbably, impossibly, Finau stood up, and quickly—it’s painful to write this—popped the joint back into place. The effect of this reactive move seemingly should have been to leave Finau with a swollen, useless ankle, a likely withdrawal from his first Masters. It was not. (Finau’s injury has been widely described as a “dislocated ankle.” Bill Mallon, a retired orthopedic surgeon who played on the PGA tour in the 1970s, said, “There’s no way he dislocated his ankle. Relocating an ankle [after a dislocation] is really hard. It takes huge amounts of strength and lots of anesthesia. It was just a sprain.”)

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First, X-rays Wednesday night were negative. Finau went home to the house he is renting with his wife and children, accompanied by his father and his father’s second wife, Fau; his father-in-law and at least two uncles. A doctor treated Finau and his wife administered ice to the ankle. Five males in the family conducted a Mormon prayer service, with Finau’s father delivering a prayer to ask for healing. “It’s all about faith,” said Finau’s father-in-law, Tipa Galeai, one of the five men in the room. “We don’t have a magic wand, but you can never see what’s ahead of you. You just have to believe.”

Still, Finau was worried that the ankle might not be functional in time for his early afternoon tee slot. “I looked forward to this week for a really long time,” he said. “I had the confidence that I would come back [in the future], 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.”

Miraculously—Finau used that word himself, just as Woods used it to describe his comeback and presence here—he awoke with minimal swelling and pain. A Thursday morning MRI showed no significant structural damage to the joint, a virtual green light to tee it up, with a lot of athletic tape to stabilize the ankle. He went to the practice range earlier than usual and struck an agreement with his coach: “The one thing we can’t do is hurt it more.” At 12:43 p.m., he stuck a tee in the ground on the first hole and cut loose with his driver.

“Tough kid,” said his uncle, Kelepi Ofahengaue. “Roll your ankle like that and then play five hours of golf? Who does that?”

It’s a shock. But if anyone might pull it off, it’s Finau, who did not take the traditional path to Augusta.

Start with his dad. In 1974, Gary Finau’s family moved from Tonga to the Inglewood section of Los Angeles. Forty-four years later, the reason for the move is clear to Tony Finau’s 55-year-old father. “My parents thought we could come here and get a better opportunity,” said Gary, as I spoke to him next to the 18th green at Augusta. “You can come to the United States and get an education, and then live within the principles of hard work and good values. You can make a better life for your family in the United States.”

A few minutes later, Gary was interviewed by a small group of U.S. writers and took the discussion in a similar direction. He became emotional, and briefly tried to gather himself. “This is a great country,” he said. A single tear rolled down his left cheek and fell to the rich Augusta turf. There is a powerful metaphor in that moment, an immigrant spilling his tears on the tailored grass at one of the most exclusive enclaves in the United States.

Gary and his first wife, Ravena, moved to Salt Lake City and had nine children, seven boys and two girls. (Ravena was killed in an automobile accident in November of 2011; Gary has since remarried). They lived in a part of the city that struggled with gang problems, and Tony and was courted at a young age. His parents looked for ways to occupy them. Tony is a slender 6’4”, 200 pounds now, but he was a chubby kid. Youth football was an obvious choice, but Ravena wanted something different and less violent. She tried to get Tony and his younger brother Gipper (whose given name is also Kelepi) into tennis.

On the first weekend of April in 1997—as it did for so many young boys of color—that changed. Woods won the Masters by 12 shots, and Tony took up golf. Eventually, though not instantly, the gangs stepped away. Gary hung a mattress in the family’s garage and both boys honed their swings by beating balls against the bedding. Finau turned professional after graduating high school in 2007, and got a jump-start on his career by finishing second in Golf Channel’s Big Break Disney Golf, a reality television show for aspiring tour players.

Finau started Thursday with a bogey at the first hole, but played the next eight holes at four under par to move within range of the lead at three under par. After his tee shot on the par three 12th hole, Finau seemed to limp ever so slightly as he walked out of the tee box. But he said he did not play in severe pain. “I had to compensate a little bit because hitting some shots, I knew I couldn’t put the full weight I wanted on the foot.”

Finau is tall and rangy, and his long arms make him appear to bend even more than he does to reach the ball. His backswing is short and sudden from the tee. Appropriately, he is long, and birdied the 13th and 15th holes, both reachable par fives. “I took care of the par fives,” he said. He made a difficult 12-footer for par at the 12th and then the icier one at 18 to take the lead by himself. Until Spieth moved past, about 15 minutes later.

It was just one round, and a remarkable one at that, in which survival turned into contention. Players spend long careers hoping for a chance to play Augusta. To lose that chance in a novelty event would have been crushing for Finau. “He dreamed of this for a long time,” said his father, as the sun cast lengthening shadows over the grass. “What would we do, go home?” And so on Thursday night, there would be more prayers, more ice, more dreams.

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