- Prior to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock, we caught up with Tony Finau to discuss his Augusta mishap, the Ryder Cup and basketball.
Yes, Tony Finau is the golfer who twisted his ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one during the Masters par-3 contest. That moment of extraordinary misfortune, when he took a misstep and forced his ankle to bear the entirety of his 200-pound frame, will forever be linked with the 28-year-old Utahn.
But if you truly want to know Tony Finau, a better place to start is what happened later that week. Despite an ankle the size of a softball and pain he (after the fact) describes as excruciating, Finau somehow managed to finish in a tie for 10th that week, good enough to earn an invite to next year's Masters.
Finau has been overcoming obstacles during his entire golf journey, which began with him and his brother Gipper hitting balls into nets at their Salt Lake City home. They simply couldn't afford to travel and seek out top-level instructors nor shell out the requisite cash to play the nationwide junior circuits.
Then, instead of playing at least a few years in college, as most American PGA Tour pros have, Finau opted to turn professional right out of high school at age 17 in an effort to make some damn money already. He would grind away on the mini tours for seven years, as many in the background questioned his decision to forego higher education, before earning his Web.com Tour card for the 2014 season.
Four years later, he's a PGA Tour winner, one of the longest hitters in the world and firmly in the conversation for a Ryder Cup spot. His unlikely journey to stardom has made his ultimate arrival in the limelight that much sweeter.
Before this year's U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, we caught up with Finau at the courtesy of American Express to discuss making that Ryder Cup team, the role basketball still plays in his life and, of course, that wild moment at Augusta.
Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Daniel Rapaport: You're ranked 37th in the world, but there are currently eight 20-something Americans ranked ahead of you. How do you explain this plethora of young Americans playing at such an elite level?
Tony Finau: It's the Tiger Woods effect. What he was able to accomplish at such a young age—he drew me to the game, and I can only speak for myself, but a lot of the players that are my age saw Tiger in his prime when we were all teenagers. We all wanted to be like him. So I think a lot of it is the Tiger effect.
DR: You played in both weeks leading up to the U.S. Open, at the Memorial and the FedEx St. Jude Classic. What's the thought process behind that decision, rather than taking some rest?
TF: I've done both. I've taken two weeks off before I've played a major and I've played two straight weeks before a major as well. I definitely feel it's important, whether I've taken time off or played right before, that I take necessary rest time in the weeks before the tournament. I'll conserve some energy leading up to the major, both mentally and physically. There's a lot to be said about what different guys do. I don't know that there's a formula for what's the best way. I'm still trying to figure out in my fourth year on tour. I think there will come a time where I know the perfect strategy for me, but for now I'm still playing it by ear.
DR: You didn't go to college, but also didn't get status on a major tour until about seven years after turning pro. Looking back, are there any regrets?
TF: None at all. I learned a lot, playing against some of the best players in the world right out of high school. I Monday qualified into the U.S. Bank when I was 17 and I got to see first-hand a lot of the best players in the world on the PGA Tour, play with them, see the types of scores they were shooting. I don't have any regrets as far as not going to college. I learned a lot about myself, with perserverance being the main thing. There were a lot of people doubting me.
DR: Looking ahead to September, you're 16th in the Ryder Cup points standings. How much does making that team factor into your scheduling decisions?
TF: It's definitely a big goal of mine, definitely on my radar. But it's almost like a long-term goal because of how far away it is. I'll only make the team if I take care of the things I can control on a weekly basis and on a daily basis. My most important goal is to set myself up on every Sunday to have a chance to win, and I know if I do those things then everything else will take care of itself. I can't control what's gonna happen in September. So although that's a goal, the short-term goals that I have are more important than that.
DR: So you haven't started lobbying [Ryder Cup captain] Jim Furyk yet?
TF: Not yet (laughs). After Augusta, he did ask me how my ankle was doing, and I told him "I'll be fine by September." He got a good chuckle out of that.
DR: You had an opportunity to play basketball at BYU before deciding to turn professional in golf. If you're choosing four other PGA Tour pros to make up a pickup team, who are you picking?
TF: Gary Woodland. Also, Michael Putnam—he can play down low. He's like 6'4", 6'5" and he's strong. Also Andrew Loupe, that guy is a fantastic athlete. Last guy, I'll take Smylie Kaufman. I know he plays a lot. Brandon Harkins can be the sixth man.
DR: Do you play basketball during the season?
TF: Usually I do, yeah. I have a half-court in my house. If you saw my house, you'd think I was an NBA player. I have no golf setup at all inside, just a half-court for me and a volleyball setup, for my wife who plays. But since my ankle, I haven't been able to play. My ankle is good enough for golf, but we're still about six or eight weeks away from basketball.
DR: Just how much pain were you in at Augusta?
TF: Right after it happened was pretty bad, but the next day, Thursday morning, was as bad as it got. I was in excruciating pain, I'd say a nine out of 10. I couldn't put any weight on my left ankle. And on Sunday, coming down the back nine, it was again like a seven or an eight. My ankle was telling me that it had had enough. I have no idea how I birdied six holes in a row on that back nine.