ESPN and CBS, April 8–11
Tony Finau should be one of the biggest stars in golf. Everything about his game is outsize, from his height (6' 4") to his power off the tee (he has said he is chasing Bryson DeChambeau, and he is one of the few who can catch him) to his smile. He has a memorable name, a fun backstory, he is perpetually in contention and he might be the nicest player on the PGA Tour. There is just one small problem: He never wins.
From October 2017 through the beginning of March, Finau finished in second place eight times. He didn’t win once. His run of near-greatness is maddening; it seems so statistically unlikely that one wonders whether Finau was born with a severe trophy allergy, or whether there is a flaw in his game that keeps him from finishing first. But if there’s such a flaw, why doesn’t it stop him from contending? In the last two seasons, Finau has 12 top-10 finishes. Only Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm have done better.
In theory, Finau should be one of the favorites in the Masters, an event in which he has (of course) finished in the top 10 twice in three tries. But it is hard to pick a man to win golf’s most famous event when he can’t win any others. Finau is still stuck on one career win: the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. (That event comes with its own weird juju; until last December, no Puerto Rico Open champ had ever won again.)
Finau has contended so often without winning that a year ago, golf-loving pianist Sam Harrop penned “When Will Tony Finau Win Again?” to the tune of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Finau found it hilarious, but he still hasn’t won. During one recent six-tournament stretch, he finished in the top eight five times.
Finau’s career is fascinating, not just for what it says about him but because of what it says about golf. Finishing second in golf is more impressive than finishing second in just about any other sport, because there are no matchups, and the difference between first and second is often just one or two strokes. When Novak Djokovic whipped Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open men’s final in February, the gap between the players was large; when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, they did so by exploiting the Chiefs’ biggest weakness: their depleted offensive line. But when Max Homa beat Finau in a playoff at the Genesis Invitational recently, Homa did not exploit anything. He just finished 74 holes in 279 strokes while Finau finished them in 280.
We like to wrap winning in mystique, and imagine that those who triumph have a special combination of mental toughness and guile. Surely, those are important. But so is luck. Homa missed a three-foot putt to win the Genesis in regulation, so how can we say he has some sort of clutch gene that Finau lacks?
Something about Finau seems not quite real. He appeared on the Golf Channel’s The Big Break in 2009, which is not, as we recall, how Ben Hogan’s career started. In 2018, Finau made a hole-in-one in the Masters’ par-3 contest, then celebrated by running backward and landing awkwardly on his left ankle. He said he dislocated it. He popped it back in place and shot a first-round 68 the next day.
Some players, like Thomas, excel at closing out wins when they are in contention. Others, like Brooks Koepka, know how to summon their best golf for the biggest tournaments. And one, a gentleman from another planet named Eldrick Tont Woods, has done both to an absurd degree—he has won 15 majors and his PGA Tour playoff record is a preposterous 11–1.
But the gap between most top golfers and Finau is easy to overstate, and it is closable. There was a time when people wondered whether Phil Mickelson would ever win a major, and then he won five. Dustin Johnson was snakebit in the Masters until he wasn’t.
Winning golf tournaments is an exercise in managing failure: Make your worst day of the week as good as it can be, save par when it needs to be saved, and you give yourself a chance. It would be very easy for Finau to ask the question so many golf fans have asked: Is there something fundamentally wrong with Tony Finau?
“I haven’t really pinpointed anything,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot better every year, in every part of my game. And if that trend continues then I know I’m going to win some golf tournaments.”
He said that two years ago. Since then he has changed putting grips, tried to add swing speed, and continued to improve, but he still hasn’t won. Finau can’t fight this feeling too much or it will consume him. He does not need to radically change who he is or how he plays. He needs what any great golfer needs: trust in himself. If he has that, his day will come. —Michael Rosenberg
OTHERS TO WATCH
Coming off his win at the Masters in November, it feels like the 36-year-old could be the favorite at Augusta for a long time to come.
He has a complete game and is the best in the world at handling the mental challenges of the big ones. If he’s healthy, he should be a factor.
He hasn’t won since the 2017 Open Championship, but Spieth has eliminated his two-way miss and is made for Augusta National.