OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The tournament was on the line and Tony Finau faced a key putt on the final hole. He missed and threw a fit, stomping his feet around the hole and, as he recalls, acting like a child.
He was a freshman in high school.
It turned out to be one of the pivotal moments in his life, making him determined never to let losing - that happens a lot in golf - define his character. And it’s one reason why his victory at Liberty National after more than five long years without a win was so popular with his peers.
“My dad was my teacher and my hero, but he didn’t say a word to me when I left,” Finau said Wednesday. “Just from that silence, I understood what that meant. That was not how he raised me. That’s not what champions do. That’s not how you act on a golf course.
“So that was a teaching moment for me,” he said. “I was not ever going to do that, ever again. … I’m going to deal with my losses, take it on the chin and deal with it with class.”
There was a lot of practice.
Never mind that Finau has never been ranked outside the top 25 in the world for the last three years or was part of the last Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. He wasn’t winning. Since his lone victory in Puerto Rico in 2016, he had eight runner-up finishes, three of them in playoffs.
Chin up. Back to work. No excuses. Always gracious.
It has become as much a hallmark as his Tongan-Samoan heritage and the power he generates from that athletic, 6-foot-4 frame.
Small wonder that 1,000 or more text messages poured in Monday night after his victory in the rain-delayed Northern Trust, which vaulted him to the top of the FedEx Cup standings with two events left in the chase for a $15 million prize.
Jon Rahm had a two-shot lead on the back nine and usually needs a little time to cool down from a tough loss. On this day, he headed out to the 18th green to embrace Finau.
“If you don’t like Tony Finau, there’s something seriously wrong with you,” Rahm said.
The first text came from Tiger Woods, particularly meaningful because it was Woods winning the 1997 Masters that inspired Finau to play golf. Plus, it meant Woods was watching.
“That was a very special one,” Finau said.
“Pretty amazing how many people were willing to reach out and just show their support and how happy they were for me,” he said.
What makes him so popular?
“I’ve known Tony for over 20 years. He comes from a great family. He‘s a wonderful person,” Rory McIlroy said. “Obviously, he hadn’t won in a while, but he never complained. He just sticks his head down, goes about his business. It was a really popular win in the locker room.”
The next order of business is the BMW Championship, which starts Thursday on a Caves Valley course that none of the 69-man field knows. The Baltimore area has gone six decades since it last had a PGA Tour event.
It’s a big course, a big walk and a big week. The top 30 advance to the Tour Championship next week in Atlanta to close out the season.
McIlroy is among those on the bubble at No. 28. For the Americans, it’s the final week to earn Ryder Cup points. More importantly, Steve Stricker makes six captain’s picks after the Tour Championship, and it would help players to be at East Lake to make their case.
“I do feel like I’m a very mentally strong person, because we live in an era now where you guys are watching our every move, and I’m going to have critics,” he said. “But that’s how it is, and that’s what I signed up for, and I know that. I expect that.
“And now that I’ve kind of broken that barrier, my goal moving forward is to continue with this momentum and make a run at this FedEx Cup.”
Why was he such a popular winner?
“If you want to be good at anything, you’re going to go through some really hard times. When you go through those, it’s OK to be nice, it’s OK to be kind,” he said. “I never wanted to be one where golf was going to kill me. I’ve seen it happen to too many people where they let the game literally drive them crazy.
“The game has given me so much already to this point in my career,” he said. “I have an amazing life because of the game, and I try to portray that in who I am and how I am. I’m a very grateful person, and I try to portray that, and I think that has helped on my journey to just attract people that want to see me succeed.”
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