JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Tony Finau has a few sayings he lives by, one of which is goals are dreams with a deadline.
Down to the final three events in the FedEx Cup playoffs, his deadline was looming to win a tournament in the PGA Tour’s 2020-21 “super season” of 50 events and to make sure that he showed U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker that he was deserving of a spot on the 12-man team.
On a Monday finish thanks to Hurricane Henri, Finau hunted down World No. 1 Jon Rahm by shooting 6-under 65 at Liberty National and defeated Cameron Smith in a sudden-death playoff with a par on the first extra hole to win the Northern Trust for his first victory on the PGA Tour since 2016.
Finau, who trailed Rahm and Smith by two strokes entering the final round, birdied two of the first four holes to grab a share of the lead, but he failed to escape a greenside bunker from a plugged lie at the par-5 eighth and made bogey to drop two strokes behind Rahm.
But on an episode of his podcast, “Let’s Get It,” which he hosts with his swing instructor, Boyd Summerhays, Finau explained how he kept his poise and delivered in the clutch.
“What are three things we never do?” Finau said to Summerhays rhetorically. “We don’t panic, we don’t panic and we don’t panic.”
Finau played a five-hole stretch beginning at No. 12 in 5 under, including a 3-foot eagle putt at 13, to catapult past Rahm. That brought to mind another of his favorite sayings, courtesy of World Golf Hall of Famer Billy Casper.
“He said the loudest noise in golf is the swift change of momentum,” Finau said. “When I read that I knew exactly what he was talking about.”
The momentum of the tournament was stalled by Hurricane Henri, which dumped nine inches of rain on the course in 36 hours. It took a Herculean effort to get the course playable, with final-round tee times delayed four hours. Early starters played in drizzling rain, but sunshine would poke through the battleship-grey clouds by the time the leaders teed off.
For much of the day, it looked as if Rahm, who won the U.S. Open in June and was playing for the first time since he tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time forcing him to miss the Tokyo Olympics, would stroll to an easy victory. But his putter cooled off and when Finau and Smith applied pressure, Rahm blinked. He bogeyed Nos. 15 and 18 to shoot 69 and finished in third at 18 under.
In the tournament within the tournament, Keith Mitchell birdied the last three holes to improve 38 spots in the standings and finish No. 63, bumping Matthew Wolff from the BMW Championship, the second leg of the playoffs. Tom Hoge and Alex Noren, who shot 66, both shared fourth with Justin Thomas and were among the other five players to jump inside the top 70 in points and advance to the next tournament along with Harry Higgs, Erik van Rooyen and Harold Varner III.
Finau had struggled with his putter during Saturday’s third round so he brought his putter to his hotel room to practice on Sunday.
“I need to have a talk with it,” he said. “It needs to wake up.”
He picked a good time to waken it, drilling a 30-foot birdie putt at the par-3 14th and tacked on one last birdie at 16 to cap off a back-nine 30. Finau sank all nine attempts in the final round from 3-7 feet, including a 6-foot par save at the last, clenching his right fist.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) August 23, 2021
It wouldn’t be that easy for Finau as Smith, who shot a course-record 60 on Saturday, birdied four of the last seven holes on Monday to shoot 67 and tie him with a 72-hole total of 20-under total 264. When the two players returned to 18 for the first playoff hole, Smith’s tee shot peeled right into the penalty area effectively ending any drama.
“Just a mis-hit and in that situation,” Smith said, “you can’t do that.”
After tapping in for the win, Finau, who vaulted into first place in the FedEx Cup point standings, leaned back and exhaled a sigh of relief. And for good reason – he had posted 39 top-10 finishes since his lone victory at the 2016 Puerto Rico, a span of 1,975 days between titles.
“It took everything I had,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about that walk up 18 for a long time. It’s been years and it’s nice to finally have that and to now put that second win behind me.”