JERSEY CITY, NJ — Tony Finau has a few sayings he lives by, one of which is that goals are dreams with a deadline.
Until the final three events of the FedEx Cup playoffs, his deadline was looming to win a tournament in the 2020-21 PGA Tour 50-event “super season” and convince US Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker that he deserved a place in the 12-man team.
In a late Monday thanks to Hurricane Henri, Finau stalked world No. 1 Jon Rahm shooting 6-under 65 at Liberty National and beat Cameron Smith in a sudden-death playoff with a par over the first extra hole to earn the Northern Trust for its first PGA Tour victory since 2016.
Finau, who trailed Rahm and Smith by two strokes early in the final round, birdied two of the first four holes to take a share of the lead but missed a shot from the green’s bunker on the par-5 eighth and bogeyed to drop two shots behind Rahm.
In an episode of his podcast, “Let’s Get It,” which he hosts with his swing instructor, Boyd Summerhays, Finau opened up about how he kept his cool and delivered in the clutch.
“What are three things we never do? Finau told Summerhays rhetorically. “We don’t panic, we don’t panic and we don’t panic.”
Finau played a five-hole streak starting at No. 12 on 5 under, which included a 3-foot eagle putt at 13, to catapult past Rahm. It reminded me of another favorite lyric of his, courtesy of World Golf Hall of Famer Billy Casper.
“He said the loudest sound in golf is the rapid change in momentum,” Finau said. “When I read that, I knew exactly what he was talking about.”
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The tournament’s momentum was halted on Sunday by Hurricane Henri, which dumped nine inches of rain on the course in 36 hours. It took a Herculean effort to make the course playable, with tee times for the final round delayed by four hours. The early starters played in the pouring rain, but the sun was breaking through the battleship-grey clouds as the leaders departed.
For much of the day it looked like Rahm, who won the US Open in June and was playing for the first time since testing positive for COVID-19 for the second time, forcing him to miss the Tokyo Olympics, walked into an easy win. But his putter cooled and when Finau and Smith applied pressure, Rahm blinked. He bogeyed our 15 and 18 to shoot 69 and finished third at 18 under.
“You know, the 15th is the one I keep going to. I hit every one of those five shots the way I wanted, and that’s the unfortunate part,” Rahm said. “The wind didn’t push the ball the way I thought it would, and I think that was the difference.”
In the tournament round, Keith Mitchell birdied the final three holes to improve 38 places in the standings and finish No. 63, edging Matthew Wolff of the BMW Championship, playoff second leg. Tom Hoge and Alex Noren, who shot 66, both shared fourth place with Justin Thomas and were among the five remaining players to jump into the top 70 in points and qualify for the next tournament along with Harry Higgs, Erik van Rooyen and Harold Varner III.
Finau, 31, had struggled with his putter in the third round on Saturday, so he took the club to his hotel room for practice on Sunday.
“I need to have a conversation with him,” he said. “He needs to wake up.”
He picked the right moment to wake him up, drilling a 30-foot birdie putt at the par-3 14and and nailed a final birdie at 16 to cap a back-nine 30. Finau sank all nine attempts in the final round from 3 to 7 feet, including a 6-foot save at the final, clenching his right fist.
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It wouldn’t be so easy for Finau, as Smith, who broke a course record 60 on Saturday, hit four of the final seven holes on Monday to shoot 67 and match it with a 72-hole total of 20-under 264 When both players came back to 18 for the first hole of the playoffs, Smith’s tee shot went out of bounds, effectively extinguishing any drama as Finau made an orthodox par.
“Just a terrible swing,” Smith said, “I had a little low and a little healing and just blew up in the wind and went a long way to the right.”
After tapping for the win, Finau, who took first place in the FedEx Cup points standings, leaned back and breathed a sigh of relief. And for good reason – he had posted 39 top-10 finishes, including eight runners-up since his lone win in Puerto Rico in 2016, a 1,975-day span between titles and 143 starts.
“It took everything I had,” he said. “I have been thinking about this 18-year-old climb for a long time. It’s been years and it’s good to finally have that and now put this second victory behind me.