Augusta, Ga • Tony Finau stared at his golf ball in disbelief Sunday afternoon, when his eagle attempt somehow stayed out of the hole on Augusta National Golf Club’s 13th green.
An eagle would have earned him a pair of crystal glasses from his first appearance in the Masters. Yet the rather unsatisfying birdie played into an almost historic run that eventually gave Finau something even better than goblets: an invitation to the 2019 Masters.
The West High School alum’s tie for 10th place matched his best finish in a major tournament, and the top 12 players (plus ties) are invited back next April. Other avenues would have been available for Finau in his hopes of returning to Augusta National, but he was determined to drive out of Magnolia Lane with immediate assurance of another opportunity to play a course where he could do big things in the coming years.
“I just confirmed that to myself this week,” he said.
Everybody else should have become a believer in him, whether the best evidence was Thursday’s 68 after he injured his ankle in Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest or Sunday’s 6-under-par 66 that seemingly came out of nowhere, the way he was missing fairways and greens through 11 holes.
Coming off a bogey, Finau was even par for the day and 1 under for the tournament at that stage, needing to play the last seven holes in 5 under or better to make the top 12. “I really put my head down,” he said, “and wanted a good finish.”
His ball-striking suddenly became outstanding, and the putting that kept his round alive on the front nine turned those good shots into birdies. Finau birdied the par-3 No. 12 for the second day in a row, then two-putted for birdies on Nos. 13 and 15. In between, he hit a wedge to within 4 feet on No. 14.
On the par-3 No. 16, with former University of Utah football coach Urban Meyer and ex-Ute star Eric Weddle watching, Finau knocked another shot close to the hole. Charley Hoffman topped him with a hole-in-one. Hoffman ran a few steps down the fairway, but his celebration was more subdued than the one after the ace that caused Finau’s injury.
They joked about that subject during the walk to the green. Finau then completed a birdie that lost him some ground in the twosome’s competition (Hoffman also made the top 12), but kept his streak going.
Finau’s best shot of the week came on No. 17 — after his wayward drive hit a spectator on the leg and rolled back about 20 yards. With a 5-iron, needing about a 40-yard slice, Finau threaded a shot through the Georgia pines from 185 yards to within 3 feet of the hole and made another birdie.
Finau ended up one birdie short of the Masters record of seven in a row, set by Steve Pate in 1999 and matched by Tiger Woods in 2005. But he was not about to be greedy, having maximized his first visit to Augusta National. His jump from a 15th to 10th was his most significant Sunday move in a major; he had gone from sixth to 10th in the final round of the 2015 PGA Championship.
That showing in his PGA Tour rookie season was impressive, but the toughness he displayed in the Masters topped the performance at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. As of Thursday morning, when even the staircase of his rental house made walking painful, “There’s no way I would have dreamed I could play this well,” he said.
Finau’s finish was the best for any golfer with Utah ties in a Masters debut, topping George Schneiter’s tie for 13th in 1946. Schneiter earned $213; Finau pocketed $286,000.
Finau was worn out Sunday evening, having walked 72 holes up and down the hills of Augusta National on an ankle he predicted would be “yellow and purple.”
So the crystal vase he won for the ace in the Par 3 contest, a discolored ankle and another Masters invitation that will arrive at his home in Lehi around Christmastime are his souvenirs from a memorable week. Judging by the way Finau played on the back nine Sunday, a green jacket no longer is an inconceivable prize for him someday.