Tony Finau leaning on Mamba mentality and better putting in an effort to shed underachiever label

February 01, 2020
Waste Management Phoenix Open - Round Three

Steven Ryan

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — For all of Tony Finau’s otherworldly physical talents — he averages just shy of 310 yards a pop off the tee and is one of the game’s best ball-strikers, having honed his skills as a teenager hitting off a thin piece of carpet in the family garage during cold winter days in Utah — he has all of just one victory in 150 career starts in what is now his fifth season on the PGA Tour. And that win came in an opposite-field event, the Puerto Rico Open, four years ago.

These are facts and Finau is well aware of them.

“No doubt,” he said when asked point blank if he feels like he needs to win this year. “I've been close in the past.”

After a sizzling nine-under 62 in Saturday’s third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open to take a one-shot lead over Webb Simpson, the 30-year-old is close again. Now the question is, can he close?

Since that lone victory in Puerto Rico, Finau has 31 worldwide top 10s, which include four runner-up finishes in 2018 as well as two in the last few weeks, at Torrey Pines and in Hong Kong. To put that in perspective, only Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson have more top 10s in the last three years.

Heady company. But it’s also a dubious distinction when you don’t have any trophies to show for it — a sign of promise as much as the dreaded curse of underachievement.

Finau’s play on Saturday was certainly the former. In a span of five holes in the middle of the back nine at TPC Scottsdale, he made three birdies and an exclamation-point eagle on the par-5 13th, where he striped a 326-yard drive, hit his second from 230 yards to 18 feet and sank the putt in a display that was illustrative of his abilities.

Three holes later, he showed that he’s capable of living up to the big moment, too. Wearing the jersey of his boyhood idol, Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash last Sunday, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, Finau stepped to the tee inside the stadium that surrounds it, with 20,000 well-lubricated fans in full throat, and nearly aced the par 3.

“I had a perfect number for a sand wedge and go ahead and fire right at the pin,” said Finau, who stuck his shot to five feet before rolling in the birdie putt. “That would have been pretty sweet with the Kobe jersey on. But I like that shot.”

He also likes the way he’s putting this week, and for good reason. Putting, long the Achilles heel of his game, Finau spent his brief offseason working with coach Boyd Summerhays on standing slightly closer to the ball and moving his hands a little higher on the grip. The result was fewer putts peeling off to the right.

Last season, Finau ranked 125th on tour in putting. Through three rounds this week, he’s 15th in the field and has missed just three out of 49 putts from inside 10 feet. He’s also made a half dozen from outside 10 feet, including three between 20 and 25 feet.

“Whenever you're rolling it nice, it seems to take pressure off the other parts of your game and that was definitely the case [on Friday],” he said after a second-round 66.

To Finau’s point: He’s gone 50 straight holes without a bogey, with his last coming on the fourth hole on Thursday.

It would also be fitting, if not ironic, for Finau to end his drought at TPC Scottsdale. For one, he wasn’t even planning to play in the tournament after originally committing to the European Tour’s Saudi International this week. He pulled out of that event, though, because he and his large family, which includes four kids, recently moved from Utah into a new house nearby. For another, he has missed the cut in his last four appearances at the Waste Management, with a T-22 in 2015 his best result.

A victory would also come a week after the shocking and tragic death of his basketball hero. All week, Finau has been wearing a Bryant jersey on the 16th hole. He has tried to embrace his Mamba mentality, too.

“Just simply put in hard work and love for your craft,” he said when asked what that mantra means to him. “I think that's what Kobe preached and what he continues to preach. I think that's his lasting legacy.”

Kobe had another one, too: Winning.