Inspired by Tiger, Tony Finau seeks the final round of his dreams at the Masters

Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

Inspired by Tiger, Tony Finau seeks the final round of his dreams at the Masters

Masters

Inspired by Tiger, Tony Finau seeks the final round of his dreams at the Masters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – He was sucked into the sport by Tiger, taught the game by his father, then as a pro at just 17 years old, he was grinding on mini-tours and Golf Channel reality shows, scraping to keep a fading dream alive. Tony Finau waited, then climbed, then in one ecstatic-turned-agonizing moment, it seemed he had arrived, with an ace at Augusta and a celebratory sprint and the turned ankle seen ‘round the world.

A year later: No ace, no sprint, and thankfully, no pain.

Instead, two healthy ankles. And a spot in the final group at the Masters with the very man whose brilliance on this course 22 years ago first inspired him to pick up a golf club.

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“First golf tournament I ever watched was the ’97 Masters,” Finau said Saturday, going back to when he was seven years old. “Tiger is a huge, huge inspiration and influence on me, and that ’97 Masters meant a lot.”

What does Finau’s sizzling 64 Saturday earn him? The biggest Sunday of his golfing life.

He’ll tee it up at 9:20 ET Sunday morning in the final group with Francesco Molinari, who’s leading the field by two at 13 under, and the venerable Tiger Woods, who like Finau is 11 under heading into what promises to be one of the more memorable Sundays at the Masters in some time. Molinari’s a major champion. Woods owns 14.

In a matter of hours, Finau gets his shot.

“Something I’ve dreamed of for a long time,” he said.

Finau was so good Saturday – six birdies, one eagle, no bogeys and a course-record 30 on the front nine – that for stretches it felt like he’d flirt with the Masters single-round record, the 63 that Nick Price fired in 1986 and Greg Norman matched 10 years later. In the end, his was one of three 64s on the day; Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay also went 8-under.

But Finau, he of that short, snappy backswing and those long, bombing drives, is the realest threat of the three heading into Sunday. He climbed 14 spots on the leaderboard Saturday and will for the second time in 10 months wake up on the Sunday of a major championship in the final group.

He shot a 72 in the fourth round of last summer’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock and finished four back of Brooks Koepka. The difference this time around? For starters, Finau won’t have to wait until 3 p.m. to tee off. Due to impending inclement weather, Masters officials moved up the starting times of Sunday’s final round. Finau, Woods and Molinari are off at 9:20. Finau likes that. Less time to think.

“It was like the longest day of my life, and I still hadn’t teed off,” he said of last year’s final round at Shinnecock.

Also significant this time around is who he’s playing with. The Woods factor is real. Finau, like so many young tour pros today, was mesmerized by Tiger’s utter dominance in the 2000s, stirred to take up the game and imitate his idol. His first real summer of playing golf came months after Woods’ record-setting run through Augusta in April of 1997. Two decades later, he’s the first full-time tour player of Samoan and Tongan descent.

And he’s got the game and the temperament to handle what awaits: a Sunday at the Masters, Tiger in red, the nerves high and the stakes higher.

Finau likes his chances. It was back at the Ryder Cup in September when he looked around the room at his American teammates – Woods, Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson to name a few – and realized where his wild golfing odyssey had taken him, from the Hooters Tour to Golf Channel’s “The Big Break” to that dislocated ankle in the Par 3 Contest the day before his first Masters last spring. He dunked his hole-in-one on No. 7 then took off down the fairway, turned to see if his family was watching and, in his words, “ruined my ankle for a few months.”

He gritted through 72 holes the next four days and somehow finished tied for 10th. This year, Nike gifted him a high-top for the Par 3 just to be sure.

And he entered this week anxious to see what he could do on two good ankles.

“Not only do you belong in here,” Finau told himself at the Ryder Cup, “but you can become a major champion like most of the guys in here.”

In Sunday he’ll stare down his latest chance, and maybe his best one to date, a green jacket up for grabs with Woods, the player who defined his youth, chasing his fifth right there in the same fairway.

Why then, he was asked Saturday, does his generation seem so unfazed by Tiger’s presence? A decade ago Woods’ mere arrival on the driving range sent a shiver down the spine of every player in contention. No more, it seems.

Finau credits Tiger. It was Woods who helped mold the very golfing beasts – McIlroy, Koepka, Spieth, Thomas – he’s now battling.

“Tiger, the way I look at it, taught us to compete,” the 29-year-old Finau said. “Meaning, you shouldn’t cheer anybody. Tiger, we’re the aftermath, if you will, of the Tiger Effect. The way he dominated and watching him growing up, it was like he was scared of nobody. So I think a lot of us try to be like him and try to be that way to where nothing on the golf course can scare us.”

Will Sunday scare Tony Finau?

“It’s always a great tournament whenever Tiger is the mix, and he’s 100 percent in the mix right now,” Finau said. “So it’s going to be a Masters to remember. I know that for sure.”

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