PROVO — A photo of Tony Finau’s swollen, black and blue right foot circulated around the world a day after he nearly set a Masters record for consecutive birdies in a single round at the storied course at Augusta.
His leg above the ankle bone and below his calf muscle was a portrait of trauma. Doctors diagnosed Finau with a high ankle sprain after he dislocated the joint earlier in the week while celebrating a hole-in-one in the Par-3 Contest, a family-friendly event that is part of the famed major tournament in Georgia.
High ankle sprains can keep football and basketball players out of games because they restrict motion and athletes can’t protect themselves or play at the speed needed with their feet.
But at his first Masters, a lifelong dream of Finau, it was merely one more hurdle for him to face — no big deal.
In Finau’s Sunday round, as he made six consecutive birdies on the back nine that included holes at Amen Corner, a close friend and backer was soaking in every second. Mark Whetzel, who is on the board of the Tony Finau Foundation and director of Vanguard Golf, was glued to his TV screen, taking in as many shots as CBS producers could muster of Finau.
“I was just counting one birdie after another in awe, saying, ‘I knew he could do it,’” said Whetzel. “At that point, I was just hoping he’d finish in the top 10 and earn a return trip to Augusta National.”
Whetzel, a former golf instructor at the University of Utah and tournament director of the Web.com Tour event at Thanksgiving Point, has a son, Austin, who is currently a walk-on defensive back at BYU.
Whetzel said nothing Finau did that day was surprising because the Lehi resident has the mentality that he can beat Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson every time he tees it up, and he’s proven that.
“I know it sounds cliché, but nothing Tony does surprises me at all. He is that talented mentally and physically. It isn’t that he’s so tall and can hit it so far, he just really is that tough.”
That Finau had a painful ankle sprain and continued to compete, shooting 4 under par the first round then holding on for a 7-under-par finish to tie for 10th is something Whetzel understands because it is who he is. That Finau shot a 6-under 66 Sunday was certainly a Finau feat — doing so while working on one good leg.
“Holy cow, first and foremost it doesn’t surprise me at all because of where he came from," Whetzel said. "His back has always been against the wall. He always had to play with the same pair of shoes when growing up. He had to play with the same glove for a year and a half and he couldn’t afford to ever buy the latest driver so he kept using the same one all those years. This is Tony.
“For him, this is kind of normal. If you have a problem, fix it and move on. He was a great basketball player in high school and probably played with a few sprained ankles," Whetzel continued. "I don’t think he ever had a dislocated ankle before. But this was all the product of his mental toughness and upbringing and things he’s had to go through to get where he is today. He lost his mother at a young age and all the trials he’s had to endure. It all prepared him for his shining moment at Augusta National that week.”
As it stands, Finau ranks No. 9 in the FedEx rankings. He is No. 10 on the PGA Tour money list after 13 events with $2.4 million after his Masters check worth almost $300,000. Finau ranks a few spots higher in the FedEx standings than Paul Casey, Jason Day, Brendan Steele, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth.
That, folks, is shine.
Whetzel remembers back in the day when Tony grew up in the Rose Park neighborhood. “He was a pudgy tall kid who we all thought would grow up to play linebacker or defensive end at BYU. He had that kind of body and he was that tough.”
I asked Whetzel where he believed in his heart Finau would have finished in his first Masters had he not injured his ankle.
“To tell you the truth, I think it would have been about the same, maybe even not as good,” he said.
“Tony played the tournament by taking a conservative approach, keeping his weight on his right side and not shifting to his left where he can take advantage of his power and length. What I’m saying is the injury probably held Tony back a little bit and kept him from hitting the ball into trouble.
“I’m being serious. It hurt him. It probably hurt him more to walk those four rounds than to swing the club," Whetzel continued. "His swing coach, Boyd Summerhays, had him staying on his right side as much as he could.
“This is why he is so good. He was able to score that good, go that low by using his head and making shots and rolling in putts without his power and length, which is about as long as anyone on Tour.
“Finau is so tough. Just going through mini-tours, having to fight for everything he has, having to play with a rock in his stomach when his mother died. He’s that tough. That’s just the kind of character he is."
Finau’s week was amazing. Those who know him expect nothing less. It was symbolic.