Week in and week out, Tony Finau remains the PGA Tour’s great enigma, playing with his head among the best professional golf talent in the world even as those all-important wins evade him.
Watching Finau is a mixture of wonder and awe, a touch of ache. He takes you right to the golden chalice, then somebody yanks it away.
He hits his drives as long as anyone on Tour with an effortless abbreviated swing. He hits crisp iron approaches, can spin it back, hole out from bunkers and make 50-footers on the green. In his giant soft hands, the handle of a golf club almost disappears and his 6-foot-4 athletic frame distinguishes him in the distance as he towers over most players on tour.
Finau is one of the most admired, respected and beloved players on tour, emitting a quiet confidence, a kind and almost cherubic countenance. He’s a family man, a great father and husband and faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Yet week after week since he won the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, he’s struggled to win. He’s come close in the game’s greatest events. He blew out the hottest European player Tommy Fleetwood in match play of the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris, 6 and 4, when Fleetwood had been the star with a 4-0 match play record.
This past week, playing in Saudi Arabia with the best players on the planet, he beat the World’s No. 1 player Dustin Johnson by a stroke on the final day (67 to 68), but could not make up the three-shot lead Johnson had carved out over the previous 54 holes. He ended up tying for second place with Justin Rose, one of England’s best players.
Finau has finished fourth, second and second in his last three events counting that T2 on the European Tour stop in the desert last week.
Yet, another win is so very, very close.
How does Finau’s first six years on the PGA Tour compare to the first six seasons of two of the most well-known legends connected to Utah, both members of Golf’s Hall of Fame, Billy Casper and Johnny Miller?
Here are the numbers.
In Finau’s first six seasons, counting this one that just started, he has played in 172 events with one win, 43 top-10 finishes and 85 top-25 finishes.
In Miller’s first six seasons (counting a completed sixth season) that began after his playing career at BYU in 1966, Miller had 16 top-10 finishes, 31 top-25 finishes and two wins on tour. Miller’s breakout season was two years after his sixth year in 1974 when he won eight times.
The late Casper remains one of the most successful Ryder Cup players in history. He played on the PGA Tour for several years as an amateur before turning professional in 1955. In his first six years on tour, dragging a trailer behind a station wagon full of kids from tournament to tournament, Casper played in 142 events. He won 13 times with 64 top-10s and 139 top-25 finishes.
What this tells us is two things.
First, Finau’s initial six years on the PGA Tour is extremely impressive and on par, if not better, than Miller’s, whose record-setting U.S. Open victory at Oakmont in 1973 remains one of the top accomplishments in golf history.
Second, this tells you just how dominating Casper was in the late 1950s and ’60s and there is a reason he basically took the wind out of the competitive career of Arnold Palmer in that 1966 U.S. Open playoff win at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Casper won another U.S. Open and a Masters as part of his 71 wins as a pro.
Before his runner-up finish in Saudi Arabia, Golf Digest writer Shayne Ryan pointed out just how unique it is that Finau has played so well, yet come up short on the final day with shared leads at the American Express and the previous event, Farmers Insurance Open, at Torrey Pines in San Diego.
“The remarkable number here is 36. That’s the number of top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour that Finau has accumulated since his lone win — the 2016 Puerto Rico Open — without sealing the deal. If that sounds like a lot, consider the fact that the next-highest total among any player who hasn’t won is 16. He’s doubling that, and it’s reached the point that his failure to close can’t be anything but a capital-N Narrative.”
This year, Finau appears to have taken a step forward even without wins. He is playing better and more consistently during the first 54 holes — placing him in a position to win. Just getting there in this competitive high-stakes and emotionally taxing arena is a tremendous accomplishment that should not be shrugged off lightly.
As Miller proved, it took him the better part of eight seasons on the PGA Tour to flash to that eight victories in 1974 when his main nemesis was the best player of the time, Jack Nicklaus.
Since 2021 started, Finau’s losses have come to No. 1 Johnson last week by two shots and to Si Woo Kim, who shot a final-round 64 for a 23-under score to Finau’s 19-under for second in the American Express. Finau was runner-up to the controversial Patrick Reed (14 under) at 9 under par at Torrey Pines. On his final hole, his second shot from a divot with a driving iron ended up in the water and he made bogey. Otherwise, he would have finished all alone in second at 10 under.
Finau has proven capable of holding his own in most of the majors against the best players in the world.
What’s in store for the rest of the season?
If you look at January and February for Finau, he’s in a place where almost every player on tour would love to be — in position to win.
Give the guy time. His experience will pay off. His game is far too good to not benefit from closing the door one of these Sundays.