Alexander: Tony Finau needed 2nd victory to get his momentum going

LA QUINTA — That old adage that the first PGA Tour victory is the hardest to achieve? It’s not always true.

For Tony Finau, the five-year lapse between victory No. 1 and victory No. 2 was even more excruciating.

“The second win was the biggest hurdle of my career … because of how long it took me to get the second one and the validation, I think,” Finau said Tuesday morning during a media conference in the runup to Thursday’s first round of The American Express, which will be played on the PGA West Stadium and Nicklaus courses and La Quinta Country Club.

“I think that that was a huge kind of turning point in my career.”

The wait, to be exact, was 1,975 days, spanning 152 tournaments (142 of them official PGA Tour events) in which Finau played.

Victory No. 1 was the Puerto Rico Open at Coco Beach in March of 2016, when Finau went 12-under for the tournament and won on the third hole of a playoff with Steve Marino, going birdie-birdie-birdie in overtime after missing a 6-footer for birdie that would have won in regulation.

That day, he said, “I think I’m still a little bit overwhelmed. It probably hasn’t all sunk in.”

Oh, if he only knew.

While struggling to win, Finau showed flashes of potential: a tie for fourth here, a second place there, high finishes at a few majors – consistently so in the British Open – mixed with missed cuts in others.

The breakthrough finally came in the third-to-last tournament of the 2020-21 season in August, the Northern Trust Open at Jersey City’s Liberty National layout, with a playoff victory over Cameron Smith.

And the wait after that victory has been significantly shorter. Finau won back-to-back tournaments last July, the 3M Open in Blaine, Minn. (coming back from five shots down going into the day to win by three) and the Rocket Mortgage Open in Detroit. He added the Cadence Houston Open in November and has three wins and six top-10 finishes in his last eight official events, including a tie for seventh at the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui two weeks ago.

“I feel like my game is in a pretty good place,” he said. “It’s early in the year, I don’t know if you really can have a full grasp on where your game’s at. But that’s why tournament golf is important to play. I think I’m just looking forward to competing again and looking forward to starting the season.”

Finau has demonstrated persistence, obviously. Now he has confidence to go with it.

“I know how to prepare better and I know how to prepare to win, just having that experience over this last six, seven months, having done it multiple times over the last little bit,” he said.

He felt he was getting better even as victory kept eluding him, and given the nature of golf – and especially the uber-competitive PGA Tour – that shouldn’t be terribly surprising. A player who keeps hanging around the top of the leaderboard is often on the brink of something special. In the 142 official events between victories, Finau had 40 top-10s and 74 top-25 finishes.

Or how about this: Since the beginning of the 2016-17 season he has had 31 top-five finishes in official events, including seven in the past 12 months.

“I think it was easy to get frustrated because I kept falling short,” he said. “I would get right to the finish line and lose in playoffs (three times since the beginning of 2018). I lost in a handful of playoffs through those years. Countless other one-shot, two-shot losses. So it was easy, I think, to – I can see on the outside looking in how easy it was to (assume) that this guy can’t close. I felt like I was getting better and that’s all I can ask of myself. I just knew it was going to happen.

“It never crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to win again. It was just that when it did I had full faith that it was going to happen and then it was going to continue to happen. So that’s kind of where I’m at now, where I’m kind of reaping that, the benefits of just believing in myself, and hopefully I just continue the good play.”

Finau said the stats showed him what needed to be fixed technically. Job One – and I’m sure plenty of weekend golfers can relate to this – was driving the ball straighter.

“I hit it very far. I was second in driving (yardage) my rookie year,” he said. “But I was almost dead last in accuracy. So that was a point in my game where I could literally look at the stats and say, ‘If I don’t get better in this I’m just not going to be a good player out here. I’m not going to last very long out here.’”

The data has helped him isolate what’s working and what isn’t. This week, 14 tournaments into the 2022-23 schedule, Finau is 18th on the tour in accuracy off the tee, 12th in strokes gained, sixth in putts per round and third in birdie-or-better conversion.

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So he never doubted his ability, though he did acknowledge being “deflated and frustrated” at times. And it might have taken a particularly brutal playoff loss, to Webb Simpson at Phoenix in 2020, to help spawn a healthier outlook. He called it “the hardest loss of my career,” and it was probably magnified because a month after that tournament the tour shut down for 13 weeks because of COVID-19.

But he said it lent him some perspective.

“It was just like, my kids and my family truly don’t know how I feel and that I’m going through this, but they actually don’t really care,” he said. “That was like good for me because it kind of humbled me to just, like, ‘How big was that actually? Is it that big a deal?’

“We all have our trials and things that we go through. But that was part of the test … and now I’m just on to another part of the test.”

Right now, he’s passing it.

jalexander@scng.com

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