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Tony Finau’s victory was a long time coming. Where will he go from here?

Speculation is that winning is a skill a golfer has to learn. Would competing in college before turning pro have better taught him the art of winning?

Tony Finau celebrates winning The Northern Trust golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City, N.J.
Tony Finau pumps his fist after winning The Northern Trust golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Jersey City, N.J.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

Tony Finau’s victory in the Northern Trust was a long-awaited tale of perseverance, faith, determination and guts. After his winning par putt on the first playoff hole found the bottom of the cup at Liberty National, he looked heavenward and sighed. The rest of the golf world smiled.

A popular giant on the PGA Tour, beloved by his peers, Finau’s win became the feel-good story of the year for many who follow the game. So satisfying, so overdue, so earned.

Finau received more than 1,000 texts hours after his win. The first was from Tiger Woods.

A five-year wait between victories for Finau, one of the world’s top players?

Yes, it was a dreadful drought. A kind of dead-man’s meandering in a game that can leave you behind as soon as you arrived.

There are plenty of reasons Finau shucked the monkey off his back. He put on a dazzling final-round display of shotmaking and putting. His 30 on the final nine was the best closing run of his career and his final-round 65 was the lowest score of the day on Monday in New Jersey.

That gets you a win.

But why has it taken so long?

Finau has had 11 top-three finishes during the drought. He had a two-stroke lead on the back nine in the final round of the Waste Management Open in Tucson two years ago before losing in a playoff that has haunted him to his core.

Putting? A little shaky on Sundays? It became kind of a joke in many golf circles. Tony just couldn’t finish. Oh, he had game, but it let him down at crunch time.

Two days before his dramatic and emotional win in the first FedEx Cup playoff event, a bunch of golf writers were opining about Finau’s chances while gathered at the Utah Open at Riverside Country Club in Provo. Paul Pugmire, the executive director of Utah’s First Tee charity, had a theory and it sounded good.

Like driving, putting and chipping, winning is a learned skill, said Pugmire. “You have to learn how to win and you do that by experiencing it, knowing how it feels and what to do to get there.”

Pugmire pointed to the fact both Finau and female teen sensation Michelle Wie turned professional early in their careers — before they’d had a chance to compete in college. They were talented high school superstars who transitioned quickly into professional players, going up against the best in the world.

While on a college circuit, they would have competed against some of the same talent they play against today, and they may have experienced victories and learned the skill of winning. With that “tacit” experience of doing it firsthand, it may have made triumphs come easier and more natural because of the skill obtained by doing it.

Winning is like opening a can of soda and releasing pressure.

I asked former BYU slot receiver Nate Meikle, now a professor at the University of Kansas, if winning is a learned skill. He said Justin Su’a, a former BYU baseball player, now the player and mental strength coach with the Tampa Bay Rays, would have a more intelligent reply.

Then Miekle said he thinks of performance as a performance range. When he took the LSAT, they gave him a score band that was plus or minus three points. “So, if I scored a 172, my score band was 169-175. The point being, it is really hard to know if 172 is my actual ability. But we can really be confident that my true ability is somewhere between 169 and 175.”

It’s the same for Finau, who has proven in Ryder Cup competition and play in the majors, that he belongs among the best.

“Tony has been so close quite a few times, so his score band is right there close to the top. With some luck he can always have a chance. And hopefully, his score band is increasing. Maybe this win helps him get better. Or hopefully, he’s been getting better and that’s why he got the win. Or, maybe he’s going to regress back to his mean and not win for a while.”

In 2012, writing in the Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter published a study on what makes winners successful and losers struggle. She studied both and came up with 10 reasons winners keep winning.

Here is her list of 10:

  1. Good mood: Emotions affect performance.
  2. Attractive situation: Wins create a magnet for positivity.
  3. Learning: A winner is more willing to discuss mistakes and accept negative feedback.
  4. Freedom to focus: Losers punish themselves, winners are more apt to focus. Tiger Woods ruled the world until personal issues derailed his ability to give optimum performance.
  5. Positive culture of mutual respect: A winner maintains high aspirations and is able to talk about it.
  6. Solid support system grows: A winner’s circle increases, delivering more support, endorsements, opportunities for the entire team.
  7. Better press: Winners wear a halo that seems to glow.
  8. Invitations to parties: Winners find tickets to the White House, Buckingham Palace and circles of emotional power and confidence.
  9. Self determination: Winners control more of their destiny.
  10. Continuity: A winner finds more stability and confidence with themselves and their team as rewards are aplenty.

In speaking to the press afterward, reporters kept drilling Finau about his drought, his hunger, his frustration and his personal quest to win. He patiently sat and answered some of the questions over and over again.

This prompted Golf Digest writer Daniel Rapaport to tweet out: “Tony Finau answered every one of our dumb questions about not winning with kindness and grace. Never got angry or snarky. He just kept on smiling, saying all he can do is play his best, and knowing the W would come. Today, it did. How sweet it must feel. A win for the good guys.”

The winner’s circle is where Finau belongs.

He’s as good as there is on the planet, even if his PGA Tour record shows just two victories after last Monday.

His seconds, his thirds and his top-10 finishes produce a pile of cash and will continue to do so.

But this new skill, this learned experience of a win, should propel him to new heights from here on out.

If the theory holds.