AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters is important to every player in the field, but it means different things to different people. To some it's "my first major," to others "another major." But for Tony Finau, the one name much higher on the leaderboard than anyone could have expected 24 hours ago, it's a destination.
Whether you know Finau's story or not, know that his path here has been difficult and irregular. He grew up in the battered neighborhood of Rose Park, in Salt Lake City, Utah. His father, Kelepi, is a hard-working emigrant from Tonga who pinched pennies to let Tony and his brother Gipper explore their fascination with golf, a more expensive sport than, say, basketball. His mother, Ravena, an equally hard working woman who raised seven children, once slept in a car with Tony at a junior event because they couldn't afford a hotel. Kelepi set up a hanging mattress in the garage so the two boys could bang balls "safely" in each other's direction. Their ceiling was high, but the Finau's weren't wealthy, so when the opportunity came at age 17, Tony turned pro instead of attending college.
That should sound difficult, but we're just getting started with irregular. Wednesday afternoon, just 20 hours prior to Tony's first tee shot in his first trip to golf's holy grail, his ankle was dislocated.
The story of Finau's elation-to-deflation ankle dislocation is a bizarre one. Finau aced the 7th hole on the par-3 course on Wednesday at Augusta National, and in a blissful moment, ran toward the green. You couldn't blame him, a 28-year-old father of four, ecstatic as ever on golf's greatest playground. He had left his family full of caddies standing on the tee box, and when he turned to share the moment with them, he backpedaled to slow his momentum, misstepping just enough to stretch the ligaments in his left foot just enough and torque the bones of his ankle out of place. For a moment his foot was frozen in place, and cranked inward. Patron shouts turned to groans as he did what any instinctual person would do — he bent over and nudged his ankle back toward what felt like normal.
"I feel like my back's been up against the wall my whole life," Finau said Thursday, "so something like this is just another part of the story, I guess."
I guess. Finau's ankle nudge looked so simple it had many patrons at Augusta National questioning it Thursday afternoon. In part because his name was moving up the leaderboard, but also because an ankle dislocation is a severe injury by any measure. The three bones of an ankle (the tibia, fibula and talus) are normally fixed tightly to each other, held in place by ligaments. A dislocation occurs when movement stretches those ligaments such that abnormal space is created between those bones. Depending on the severity of the movement, anything can happen, but most dislocated ankles result in at least a broken bone, if not worse. But a negative X-ray Thursday night gave Finau's Masters debut new life.
Around 11 p.m. Wednesday night, he told Kelepi he was going to play. The swelling wasn't too intense…yet. Then he woke up seven hours later and he could barely walk. What came next was a blur of doctors, an MRI and "tissue work." Then, a heavy tape job, a different-than-most range session with his coach and a flat walk to the first tee.
Finau swears he's never dislocated his ankle before Wednesday. Nor has he even rolled it or sprained it. It may have helped if he had. When it comes to joint injuries, the first cut is often the deepest. Yet, 24 hours later, somehow, he strutted down the hill on the first hole with only the slightest hitch in his step. Seconds after that, he was headed back uphill toward the green, scaling the deep bunker where his tee shot lay, and searching for the pin. He couldn't see it — all towering 6-foot-4 of him — so naturally, and athletically, he jumped. It may have been instinctive for a guy who can tomahawk dunk a basketball, but it was never more clear that Finau could gut out 18 holes than when he leapt within the very first sand trap he saw Thursday.
His naturally open stance might have helped him make his way through 18 holes and 68 strokes (two behind leader Jordan Spieth), but he's not swinging the way he always has. He used his length to pick apart the par-5s, birdieing each of them, but he's keeping that injured left foot planted and flat, not letting it roll inward like it does during his normal, uninjured swing.
"He's in pain, but nothing overwhelming," said his caddie of four years Doug Bodine. "And even if it was, I think he still would have made it to the first tee. He's worked his whole life to be in this spot."
This spot. This is a spot Finau first became excited about over 20 years ago as he watched Tiger Woods win in 1997. He got even more excited eight months ago when he made eight birdies and shot a 64 in the final round of the BMW Championship, clinching a spot in the Tour Championship and, more importantly, an invite to this spot. In one the happiest moments of his life — merely seconds after an ace during the fun, family filled par-3 contest — this spot was nearly swept away.
"To be in this position I'm at now, when I woke up this morning, [it's] nothing short of a miracle if you ask me," Finau said. He was in the Masters press interview room, a better-than-it-has-to-be place that incited a "Wow" from Finau as he stood up to leave. He said it with that ear-to-ear Finau smile that runs in the family, many of which followed him for 18 holes in their TF-logoed hats, umbrellas, shirts and backpacks. As Tony signed his scorecard, and as his wife, Alayna, chased around four of Kelepi's grandchildren, grandpa Finau became emotional talking in front of a circle of reporters.
"From when my parents brought us here, it's literally — this is the greatest country ever," Kelepi said, pausing for a few seconds. He was choking up and struggling to speak. "To give my son an opportunity to play such a wonderful game…to let my son have an opportunity to come in, take advantage of something that this country has to offer. This is a great country."
Every reporter was fixated on his face, or down on his shirt as a single tear splashed onto his white polo. Just a few feet below that, though, stretching high enough to be seen, were a pair of Augusta National-logo ankle socks, the kind of which you can only buy when you reach this destination.