AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tony Finau’s last 24 hours included a little bit of everything: Pain. Embarrassment. Concern. Relief. Determination. Excitement.
The 28-year-old American with Samoan roots battled through a severely sprained ankle and shot a 4-under 68 in the opening round at the Masters. How he injured it was somewhat comical, albeit painful to watch. How he overcame it was downright extraordinary.
“You can’t make that up,” he said.
It was one of the best – certainly most unpredictable – story lines of the tournament’s first day.
Finau dislocated his left ankle celebrating a hole-in-one during the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday and then popped it back into place. X-rays were negative. Finau had an early morning MRI on Thursday to determine whether he could make his Masters debut.
Doctors cleared him to play, and his ankle was tightly taped as he headed to the practice range. No pain-numbing shots or pills. Just pure grit.
“I was just extremely happy that nothing was seriously wrong with my foot,” he said. “Quite honestly, it was a pretty cool moment followed by probably one of my most embarrassing moments and a scary moment at the same time. It was quite crazy, all the emotions that I dealt with overnight, but I was more than ecstatic to just be walking to that first tee and be playing in my first Masters.”
His swollen ankle didn’t feel quite right, and he found himself compensating on certain shots. Simply put, he couldn’t put his full weight on that foot – a huge concern for a guy known as one of the PGA Tour’s longer hitters.
“The one thing we can’t do is hurt it more,” he said. “So the No. 1 thing for me was my health and trying to take care of the next few days and not just worry about the now. It definitely hurt at different points of the round.”
It felt a whole lot better when he birdied five of 12 holes to get to 4 under. He missed a short par putt at the par-4 No. 14 or else his round could have been even better. Still, he got it right back with a birdie at the par-5 15th.
He finished tied for second with Matt Kuchar, two shots behind leader Jordan Spieth.
No one could have expected it after watching Finau gingerly climbed into a golf cart after his exhibition ended early the day before.
The ordeal started when Finau flew the back of the seventh green on Augusta National’s par-3 course and spun it back into the hole for an ace. He started running – a forbidden act on these hallowed grounds – toward the hole to celebrate. His issue came when he turned and backpedaled. He landed awkwardly on his left ankle, which grotesquely displaced. He dropped to one knee and ended up pushing the joint back into place.
“I saw where it was and I knew where it needed to be,” he said. “Instinctively, I just tried. If it didn’t work, then I would have laid there and been even more embarrassed being pulled out on a stretcher celebrating a hole-in-one.”
It was the 12th ace of his life, but first in front of his wife and kids, and it came in his first Par-3 Contest.
“It’s just a spur-of-the-moment thing,” he said. “I have no idea why I just started sprinting. I saw (the ball) disappear. It was my first Par-3 Contest, my first Masters, I made a hole in one, so there was a lot that went into that. I just took off.
“I’m probably not a great (defensive back), doing the backpedalling, so I won’t be doing that the rest of my career.”
Finau credited fire-knife dancing as one of the reasons he was able to handle the pain, the restlessness night and the uncertainty. Popular in Polynesian culture, fire-knife dancing is exactly what it sounds like. There are knives attached to the ends of sticks, covered in material set aflame, and furiously spun around by a performer. Finau perfected the craft – even dealing with a few cuts and burns along the way – well before his golf game took off.
“I look at myself as a pretty mentally tough person, and I think I showed that today in my round,” he said. “Just able to put my head down and play.”
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