Utah native Tony Finau’s perseverance a lesson in overcoming setbacks

On the PGA Tour, Tony Finau is no longer second best

(John Minchillo | AP) Tony Finau poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning The Northern Trust golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Jersey City, N.J.

Owings Mills, Md. • Unbridled euphoria unfolds alongside haunting discontent routinely in the crucible of professional golf, most conspicuously at the end of tournaments. A player wins an event and grins throughout a post-round interview on the final green. Steps away, the golfer who finished second faces probing questions about what went wrong.

The vanquished player, imbued by the sport’s air of civility, typically accepts the setback with tact. It turns out that is harder than it looks.

“A lot harder,” said Tony Finau, who had eight runner-up finishes across five winless years until he won the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust on Monday in Jersey City, New Jersey. “Extremely hard.”

But Finau revealed a code of conduct among his brethren, and with it a slice-of-life insight into the highly paid troupe that makes up elite golf’s traveling circus.

“You just have to take it on the chin,” he said Wednesday as he prepared for this week’s BMW Championship, the second stage of the tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs. “I’m going to have critics, but that’s how it is, and that’s what I signed up for.”

In a year when mental health issues faced by prominent athletes have become widely discussed, Finau’s colleagues seemed accepting of a work environment in which openly talking about setbacks is commonplace. Perhaps it is because recurring disappointment is inherent to golf, something underscored weekly at the highest levels when roughly 150 players show up to a tournament knowing only one will win it.

Still, coming close to claiming what could be a career-defining victory and not getting it can be more demoralizing than losing by 20 strokes. And yet, it is rare for a player to not accede to the questioning of reporters afterward. Not that is a beloved tradition.

“After a tough loss you don’t really want to talk to anybody,” said Jordan Spieth, who has won three major championships but also recently had a prolonged period without a win. He added: “It can be tough to explain because in our game you can do everything right and it still doesn’t go your way.

“There are plenty of events where you didn’t do anything wrong and people say, ‘What did you do wrong?’ And you have to try to come up with an answer. It can deplete your confidence.”

Rory McIlroy, who has won every golf major except the Masters, wondered Wednesday if the post-round interview might be easier if golfers had a cooling-off period, which is common in other sports.

Asked if he agreed, Spieth laughed and said he would be no less distraught.

“For me, it lasts hours to a day, so it wouldn’t really make a difference if you gave me an extra 10 minutes,” he said.

(John Minchillo | AP) Tony Finau tees off on the 14th hole in the final round at The Northern Trust golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Jersey City, N.J.

There is one thing that golfers agreed upon Wednesday: Finau’s victory at the Northern Trust after a long drought — he won the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, which was contested on the same week as a World Golf Championship event — was greeted enthusiastically by his colleagues.

“It was a really popular win in the locker room,” McIlroy said.

“Obviously Tony hadn’t won in a while, but he never complained,” McIlroy continued. “He just sticks his head down, goes about his business.”

Finau even credited the process of falling short in several tournaments — and then meeting with reporters to talk about his many second-place finishes — with helping to guide him back to the winner’s circle.

Answering questions following a defeat, he said, was an act of sportsmanship.

“I was taught since I was a kid, no matter how things go, sportsmanship is very, very important,” Finau, who is of Tongan and Samoan descent and was raised in Utah, said. “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 still. 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. I’ve never wanted that to be the case.”

Finau, 31, called the string of runner-up finishes, which included losing three playoffs, part of his development on a world golf stage.

“I didn’t get discouraged; I used it as fuel to do better,” he said. “It was more of the attitude of, ‘OK, not quite good enough yet, so keep working.’ "

Next up, trying to claim one of the top spots at the BMW Championship in Maryland and perhaps win the FedEx Cup playoffs, which conclude next week at the Tour Championship in Atlanta. Finau leads the playoff standings.

Monday’s victory may, however, yield a cosmetic change. Finau has been sporting a beard that has grown fuller in recent weeks. He vowed not to shave until he won again, or was named to the American Ryder Cup team, which will not be finalized until after the next week’s event.

Finau predicted his beard would be gone by Thursday.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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